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Mbeki Calls For New Ivory Coast Peace Talks

Leaders from all sides of the conflict in divided Ivory Coast are considering an invitation for a new round of peace talks in South Africa. The renewed efforts at mediation come as increasing tensions fuel fears of a return to war.

The party of Ivory Coast's most controversial opposition leader, Alassane Ouattara, was the first to make public an invitation by South African President Thabo Mbeki. A representative of the party (known by its initials RDR) Amadou Coulibaly, said Mr. Mbeki had called all parties to the conflict to an urgent round of talks by the end of the month in South Africa.

"We hope this mediation will be a success, because it is the first time all these persons can meet each other for finding solutions for the crisis," said Mr. Coulibaly. "So we hope in this meeting we can find a good solution."

Mr. Coulibaly says the letter received by the RDR this week is also addressed to President Laurent Gbagbo, the leader of the rebel New Forces, the prime minister, as well as the head of Ivory Coast's other major opposition party.

The call to the negotiating table comes as renewed tensions between the government controlled south and rebel held north have many Ivorians fearful of a full-scale return to war. The two sides have signed multiple peace accords, calling for constitutional changes and the disarmament of fighters, but so far nothing has been implemented.

Pro-government militias attacked rebel positions in the west last month. Fighting only stopped when the U.N. peacekeepers and a separate French contingent intervened.

Rebel forces remain on high alert. And in the aftermath of the attacks, rebel leaders have called the struggling peace process a failure.

Rebel spokesman Mamadou Kone says leaders from the New Forces will meet to discuss Mr. Mbeki's invitation. But he says given the current level of hostilities, he is not sure the time is right for talks.

"We think we must help the South African mediation," said Mr. Kone. "But we have some problems. As you know, since two months, Mr. Gbagbo is programming some attacks on our position. And we are saying it would be a good thing to solve this problem."

Supporters of President Gbagbo, who once viewed Mr. Mbeki as a welcome alternative to what had been a French-mediated peace process, also remain skeptical.

A journalist with government-run radio, Pierre-Ignace Tressia, says little has come of past meetings between the main parties to the conflict. All those invited to South Africa, with the exception of the president, he says, belong to the same opposition coalition and he does not know how such a meeting could be helpful.

Rival protests are expected in the coming days with civilians in the north asking French peacekeepers to remain, while supporters of Mr. Gbagbo in the west are calling on them to disarm rebels or leave. 4000 French troops are assisting U.N. peacekeepers, but French President Jacques Chirac says they will leave if they are no longer wanted. The mandate of the French peacekeeping force expires in April.

Ivory Coast has been mostly calm since November when French forces stopped government attacks and pro-Gbagbo protests. But, since then, there have been reports that new militias both for and against the president have been arming themselves.