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Ivory Coast Leader OKs Referendum

November 20, 2002

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ABIDJAN, Ivory Coast (AP) _ Ivory Coast’s president said Tuesday he would hold a referendum on the constitution next year, responding to a key demand of rebels who have seized half the country in a bloody uprising.

``I will hold a referendum to ask the people of Ivory Coast if they want to amend the constitution or not, and then the people will answer,″ President Laurent Gbagbo told a meeting of businessmen. His comments were broadcast on state television. ``I am not afraid of the people,″ he added.

The rebels have called for a revision of the constitution which they say discriminates against some predominantly Muslim northern tribes.

The president’s announcement came after rebels submitted new proposals for a peace accord to West African mediators in nearby Togo on Tuesday.

Peace talks in the Togolese capital Lome have been stalled for days on the rebels’ demand that Gbagbo step down and clear the way for new elections. The president says they must lay down their arms.

Rebel spokesman Sidiki Konate said he could not comment immediately on the president’s announcement and would have to examine it.

Two months after rebels launched an uprising, Ivory Coast is stuck between war and peace. There has been no fighting in the former French colony since a cease-fire was signed a month ago, but both sides are rearming, despite the peace talks that have been taking place for three weeks.

French troops are monitoring the cease-fire, and are due to be replaced by a 1,260-strong West African force by the end of the month.

West African leaders fear more fighting could destabilize the region. Ivory Coast is the world’s leading cocoa producer and home to millions of immigrants from neighboring countries.

The rebels launched their uprising with a failed coup attempt on Sept. 19. They have since seized the north of the country. Hundreds have been killed, and tens of thousands have fled their homes.

On Tuesday, the U.N. Children’s Fund, or UNICEF, said there was a risk of epidemics and malnutrition in rebel-held zones where basic services, like health and education, have collapsed.

``It is a very fragile situation, and if there is no aid, and if normal life is not re-established, it will be even harder,″ Carole Baudoin, a member of the UNICEF, told reporters in Abidjan.