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Mediators Seek Peace in Ivory Coast

October 6, 2002

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ABIDJAN, Ivory Coast (AP) _ West African mediators pressed Ivory Coast’s president Sunday to authorize a stalled cease-fire deal with rebels behind a bloody uprising. But rebels accused the government of launching new attacks amid the peace efforts.

President Laurent Gbagbo appeared caught between the region’s leaders, who were pushing for a truce, and popular pressure to rout out the insurgents who launched a Sept. 19 coup attempt and now control much of Ivory Coast’s north.

The mediators had thought Gbagbo was on board to sign a cease-fire on Saturday; but while rebels were ready to approve the agreement, the government did not send written authorization to the army officer who was to have signed on its behalf, mediators said.

``We must have the mandate,″ said Togolese Foreign Minister Koffi Panou, as the mediators from six West African nations waited to meet Gbagbo on Sunday.

Rebel officials claimed the government was preparing offensives against them even as it dealt with the mediators. Rebels said government forces attacked them Saturday at Seguela, a town about 60 miles west of rebel-held Bouake, Ivory Coast’s second-largest city.

The claim could not be independently verified. French troops based further south at the capital, Yamoussoukro, said they did not see fighting in the region. But Col. Frederic Thuet, in charge of French operations in and around Yamoussoukro, said that for the first time they did see about 300 Ivorian ground troops moving north Saturday toward rebel-held areas.

``There were a certain number of troop movements in a south-north direction,″ he said.

Government military officials could not be reached for comment. Phone lines to Seguela appeared to have been cut.

Since the uprising, Gbagbo has been promising an offensive to uproot the rebels, but the assault has never come.

The mediators were to meet Sunday with Gbagbo in Abidjan, the former French colony’s commercial center, though they said the meeting was pushed back until later Sunday afternoon. The mediators had hoped to get an authorization from Gbagbo and return to Yamoussoukro to hold a signing as soon as possible.

A cease-fire was originally scheduled to have been signed Friday but was delayed by further talks. On Saturday, the mediators said both sides were ready to sign, and they gathered in the capital, Yamoussoukro, expecting a signing. But the go-ahead from the government never came.

Rebel leader Tuo Fozie was expected to sign for the insurgents.

The rebels appear to have gathered support in the north, where people complain the southern-based government treats them as second-class citizens. Northerners are predominantly Muslim and from different ethnic groups than the largely Christian southerners.

But several towns in the south saw demonstrations Saturday demanding the government fight to crush the rebels.

``We don’t want to negotiate,″ said Willy Nadro, a pro-government marcher in Lakota, west of Abidjan. Others shouted: ``We are ready to die.″

In Abidjan, government supporters, many draped in green-white-and-orange national flags, marched through the business district Saturday, past its skyscrapers and chic restaurants.

Mamadou Koulibaly, head of parliament, said the government had to prepare an attack because it could not be sure the rebels would abide by terms of a truce.

``If it was a regular army, we could say so-and-so is a general who has given his word of honor,″ he said. ``But can we trust a corporal who has no code of honor?″

Koulibaly added, however, that he thought a cease-fire was possible.

The uprising started Sept. 19 with a bloody failed coup attempt. The rebels initially seized two cities, Bouake and Korhogo, and have since advanced to take more areas, saying that only the formidable French military presence at Yamoussoukro stops them from marching on Abidjan.

The French say they are protecting foreign nationals and providing logistical support to the Ivorian army.

The rebels include a core group of 750-800 ex-soldiers, widely believed to have been dismissed from the army for suspected loyalty to the country’s former junta leader, Gen. Robert Guei. Guei, ousted in the 2000 popular revolt that brought Gbagbo to power, was shot dead in the first hours of the Sept. 19 coup attempt.

Ivory Coast’s first-ever coup in 1999, amid an economic downturn, shattered four decades of stability rare for the turbulent region.

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