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Ivory Coast, Rebels Open Talks

October 31, 2002

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LOME, Togo (AP) _ Ivory Coast’s government and rebels opened peace talks Wednesday, moving to end a rebellion that has split the nation.

Togo President Gnassingbe Eyadema, who is hosting the talks, said he had hope of a deal within a day but he declined to indicate whether either side had yielded to the other’s demands.

``I see the willingness and determination to achieve peace in Ivory Coast,″ Eyadema said. ``With the help of God and all things being equal, we will end negotiations tomorrow.″

The rival sides did not meet face to face. Instead, negotiators met separately with Eyadema Wednesday morning.

The rebels, led by a core group of 800 recently dismissed soldiers, rose up Sept. 19 and since have seized the northern half of Ivory Coast, the world’s largest cocoa producer.

The rebels say they are fighting to protect the rights of predominantly Muslim northern Ivorians, who complain of discrimination and harassment by the Christian and animist southern tribes that traditionally have dominated the government.

The insurgents are demanding President Laurent Gbagbo resign, clearing the way for new elections within six months.

French troops in the former French colony are blocking rebels from advancing south on the commercial capital, Abidjan. The buffer zone effectively has stalemated the six-week-old rebellion.

Gbagbo’s government had insisted right up to the eve of the talks that the government would not negotiate with rebels until they put down their arms. The demand apparently left the door open for indirect talks through mediators, however.

Fellow West African leaders are trying to broker a peace deal for fear of regional destabilization from the conflict.

Gbagbo came to power in 2000 amid a popular revolt when the country’s then military ruler, Gen. Robert Guei, tried to steal presidential elections. The presidential vote was meant to restore civilian rule after Ivory Coast’s first-ever coup.

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