- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 8, 2003

PARIS, Jan. 8 (UPI) — Ivory Coast President Laurent Gbagbo said he was prepared to discuss everything with rebel leaders in Paris next week but dismissed their demands for his resignation and for fresh elections.

"Let's sit down and discuss," Gbagbo told Le Parisien in an interview published Wednesday. "Let's debate without any taboos."

He said he wanted "to come to an agreement with the rebels."

But the Ivorian president rejected the demand he step down and have new elections, saying the latter was unconstitutional, and that his resignation would unleash a decadelong civil war.

The crisis erupted following a failed Sept. 19, 2002, coup, which split the nation along ethnic lines. Rebels have since seized the northern half of the cocoa- and coffee-rich country.

Gbagbo left open a possibility of pardoning rebel leaders, however.

"I have nothing against them, and I don't even know them," he said. "But if they ask for amnesty to leave the Ivory Coast live calmly, we'll see. I'm not closed to anything."

The president's remarks came a week before a scheduled peace summit in Paris, bringing together rebels and government officials, along with various political parties and West African mediators.

The conference was thrown into doubt Monday following clashes in the western part of the Ivory Coast between rebel forces and French troops. Some 30 rebels were killed, and nine French soldiers were wounded in the fighting, considered the worst since the 16-week insurgency began.

The main rebel group, controlling the northern half of the Ivory Coast, threatened to withdraw from the Paris talks, scheduled to begin Jan. 15. But the group has since rescinded the threat.

Two other rebel movements in the west have also expressed interest in joining the discussions.

The insurgents have aired a variety of grievances to defend their rebellion, which is considered the worst crisis to hit Ivory Coast since independence from France in 1960.

Among them: discrimination and harassment by central and southern-based ethnic groups in power, particularly a hazy notion of Ivorite.

Critics argue the nationalistic dogma — promoting pure Ivorian blood — is a thin excuse to attack Burkinabe immigrants, and to target Ivorians in the north, who have close ties with Muslims from neighboring Burkina Faso.

The Ivorite concept also served to exclude popular northern politician Allassane Ouattara from the 2002 presidential elections that brought Gbagbo to power.

When the clashes began in September, Ouattara sought refuge at the French Embassy. He is now believed to be hiding outside the country.

"Since I didn't ask him to leave the country, I don't know why I should ask him to return," Gbagbo told Le Parisien. "But if he chooses to return, I won't be at the airport to meet him."

During a two-day visit to Ivory Coast last week, French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin secured yet another shaky cease-fire along with promises by rebel and government leaders to have peace talks.

But Gbagbo told Le Parisien he had already began carrying out a third promise to de Villepin — to kick out mercenaries fighting alongside government troops.

"Before Dominique de Villepin asked me, I had decided to make them leave," Gbagbo said, adding he had originally been unaware of the mercenaries' presence. "Besides, half of them have already left the country. It wasn't a good idea (to have them)."

Over the weeks of conflict, France has steadily bolstered its troop presence in the country. Originally given the task of protecting French and foreign residents, the estimated 2,500 French soldiers are now charged with enforcing sputtering ceasefires.

France's maintains close political and economic ties with its former colony, and many of the 20,000 French residents in the Ivory Coast have lived there for years.

During a Monday address in Paris, French President Jacques Chirac said France's forces there and elsewhere worked to maintain peace and help "suffering people to live in better conditions."

Nonetheless, the growing troop presence has alarmed French critics, fearful Paris may be dragged into a potentially long and bloody war.

As he wrapped up a two-day visit to Ivory Coast Saturday, de Villepin was asked about a possible backlash back home, if French troops are killed.

He said the soldiers "proved France's loyalty to the Ivory Coast," but also warned Ivorians to take responsibility for their affairs.

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