Rebels back out of talks in Paris
Published: Saturday, January 11, 2003 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, January 11, 2003 at 12:18 a.m.
ABIDJAN, Ivory Coast - Rebels fighting in western Ivory Coast pulled out of French-brokered Paris peace talks Friday, charging that loyalist forces and their mercenary fighters had attacked twice in two days despite a cease-fire agreement.
Rebel leader Guillaume Gbatto said the attacks by government forces and foreign allies occurred in the far west of the country near the Liberian border.
The western rebels - who call themselves the Ivorian Popular Movement of the Greater West, or MPIGO - also said they had been betrayed by France, which this week won promises from all sides in the nearly four-month conflict to suspend hostilities and participate in the Paris talks next week.
The rebel pullout came just a day before insurgents were to sign a formal cease-fire as a prelude to the Paris talks.
The talks are due to start Wednesday and bring together all the rebel factions fighting in this former French colony and representatives from the government.
The statement said rebel positions near the southwestern village of Grabo had been strafed by helicopter gunships Thursday, while rebels also faced a loyalist attack Friday around Toulepleu and Blolequin, further north near the border with Liberia.
Rebels said 15 civilians were killed in Thursday's helicopter attack. No casualty figures were immediately given for the alleged assault Friday.
An Ivorian army spokesman, Lt. Col. Jules Yao Yao, confirmed the fighting Friday but said rebels attacked first.
"We delivered a suitable response to their act of cowardice," he said, adding that the fighting had subsided by late afternoon.
Under pressure from France, Ivory Coast's former colonial ruler, the government and main northern rebel movement agreed last weekend to respect a repeatedly violated cease-fire and attend the Paris peace talks.
French Ambassador Gildas le Lidec later secured promises from the two western factions to suspend hostilities and participate in the talks. But Friday's fighting compromised the formal signing of a cease-fire accord, a French Embassy spokesman said.
Ivory Coast's war began in September when a northern rebel group tried to oust President Laurent Gbagbo and seized the northern half of the country.
Two other rebel factions formed at the end of November, seizing a string of towns in the rich west of the world's largest cocoa producer. The western factions since have formed an alliance.
Hundreds of people have been killed and hundreds of thousands displaced in the war. All the rebels accuse the government of fanning ethnic hatred, and want Gbagbo to resign.
"The solution to the crisis in our country is in Ivory Coast ... the immediate departure of Laurent Gbagbo," Gbatto said in his statement.
He claimed loyalist troops were backed by Liberian mercenaries in the Friday attack near Toulepleu. Gbagbo promised last weekend to send all foreign mercenaries home.
Liberians and ex-combatants from Sierra Leone's brutal civil war also have joined rebel ranks in the west of the country, raising fears that the chaos that engulfed those two countries could spread to Ivory Coast, once one of West Africa's most stable and prosperous nations.
Gbatto lashed out at France, claiming it had a role in the recent attacks. He did not elaborate. France has more than 2,000 elite troops in Ivory Coast to monitor the shaky cease-fire and protect French citizens and other foreigners.
"MPIGO declares that it has been betrayed by France," he said, calling on northern rebels to dissociate themselves from what he called "the meeting of fools which is to take place in Paris."
But a spokesman for the northern rebels said they still intended to attend the peace talks.
Antoine Beugre said the recent attacks in the west were "regrettable," adding he believed the fighting was started by loyalist forces.
"I have no confidence in Gbagbo's regime, and they'd better pay attention. If they attack us, we will react immediately and then there will be no one going to Paris," he said.
A French Embassy official said the western rebels' invitation to Paris had depended on a clear commitment to a cease-fire. He said the rebels' withdrawal would not prevent the meeting from taking place, but added that their presence was important.
The western rebels recently opened a new front in the war, pushing south toward the coastal port of San Pedro - a key hub for the lucrative cocoa industry.
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