South African President Thabo Mbeki has launched new mediation efforts in divided Ivory Coast, hoping to bring together President Laurent Gbagbo and northern-based rebels.
Mr. Mbeki started his visit in the administrative capital Yamoussoukro, going directly into a meeting with Ivory Coast President Laurent Gbagbo. The two leaders had just returned from an African Union summit in Gabon.
Mr. Mbeki is trying to bring Mr. Gbagbo and rebels together at a national unity government meeting scheduled for Wednesday in Yamoussoukro.
The three rebel ministers have been boycotting recent meetings in the southern commercial capital Abidjan, saying their security is not ensured.
They have also accused Mr. Gbagbo of continuing to block a French-mediated peace accord. If implemented, it would give equal rights to many northerners now treated as foreigners.
Since Mr. Mbeki began his mediation in November, relative calm has returned to Ivory Coast. The mediation effort followed intense rioting in the south and government aerial attacks in the north. Mr. Gbagbo said the aim was to disarm rebels.
A supporter of the president, the leader of the group known as the Lady Patriots, Genevieve Bro Grebe, says Mr. Mbeki's efforts have been very encouraging.
"Here in Cote d'Ivoire, we rely on Mbeki, because he knows the meaning of fighting for freedom," she said. "In Cote d'Ivoire, we are fighting for freedom. So we are expecting a lot from Mbeki."
Mr. Gbagbo's supporters have accused former colonial power France of favoring rebels and organizing what they call a constitutional coup. French officials have strongly denied the allegation.
A rebel spokesman Timithee Ali Baba, says the rebels known as the New Forces are not expecting much from Mr. Mbeki's visit.
He says civilians in the rebel headquarters of Bouake are also angered Mr. Mbeki seems to favor going to a referendum on easing eligibility requirements for the presidency, as Mr. Gbagbo prefers, rather than making the change immediate, as favored by rebels.
"They do not want us to be there in Yamoussoukro, because they do not find it a benefit to our causes," he said. "And what the population is saying now is you may come here in Bouake. The people are talking, they are saying that if the international community wants us to organize a referendum to adopt the laws from the MPs, we also want a referendum to ask the population here, if yes or no, we should disarm."
Mr. Mbeki's arrival in Yamoussoukro coincided with anti-Lebanese riots after two Ivorian girls were found dead fully dressed in the swimming pool of a Lebanese national. But Ivorian police quickly defused the situation, allowing the visit to proceed.