- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 8, 2003

PARIS The French government, concerned about the deadlock in Ivory Coast's civil war, has decided to deepen its role to stop what some officials described as the "gangrene" threatening West Africa.

The decision followed a visit to the turbulent region by Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin, who expressed confidence in a political solution to the conflict pitting the regime of President Laurent Gbagbo against an assortment of rebels controlling large parts of the West African country.

Negotiations involving the protagonists and leaders of Ivory Coast's political parties will begin in Paris on Jan. 15, to be followed by a major conference of West African heads of state, with the participation of the United Nations.

According to the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the idea is to establish collective responsibility for bringing an end to the turmoil and preventing the conflict from spreading beyond Ivory Coast's borders.

However, a bloody battle Monday between French troops and one of the rebel groups threatened to derail the talks.

France, which maintains 2,500 troops in Ivory Coast, has reacted to slogans chanted at mass rallies: "If Ivory Coast burns, the rest of Africa will burn, too."

Until recently, Ivory Coast was regarded as one of the most successful of France's former African colonies.

During his visit, which was marred by demonstrations and slogans accusing France either of inactivity or of too much interference, Mr. Villepin obtained an official pledge from Mr. Gbagbo to stop hostilities on all fronts and dismiss white mercenaries fighting with the aid of the government's helicopter gunships.

The fighting in Ivory Coast was started by army mutineers who supported the 1999 coup led by Gen. Robert Guei, subsequently killed by loyalist troops. A cease-fire of Oct. 17 has led to a proliferation of rebel movements, which seized control of the northern and western parts of the country and threatened to advance on the populous coastal areas.

Four summit meetings by the heads of state of the neighboring countries have not found a compromise to the feud, in which the protagonists are Mr. Gbagbo's government and the rebels of the Patriotic Movement of Ivory Coast (MPCI).

The Gbagbo government and the MPCI, which controls much of the north, have agreed to the talks, but two other smaller groups active in the west have not agreed to any truce and have not announced their position on the talks.

The French troops, consisting of paratroopers, Foreign Legionnaires and light armored units, are expected to remain in the area until they are replaced by armies of neighboring countries.

The French have been authorized to fire only in self-defense or to protect the civilian population, which includes 20,000 French citizens.

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