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South African President Hosting 1st Round of New Ivory Coast Peace Talks


The president of South Africa is hosting the first round of Ivory Coast peace talks to be held since a fragile cease-fire was shattered in November.

The warring parties from Ivory Coast are meeting for the first time in more than eight months, amid fears that their country is sliding back into civil war.

South African President Thabo Mbeki is hosting the talks at his presidential guesthouse in Pretoria.

The African Union has asked Mr. Mbeki to mediate efforts to finally end the Ivorian crisis, which has dragged on since 2002, despite several peace agreements.

The Pretoria meeting includes Ivory Coast's president, Laurent Gbagbo, rebel leader Guillaume Soro, former President Henri Konan Bedie and main opposition leader Alassane Ouattara.

All four of them sat down for lunch together before the talks began, and Mr. Mbeki said they are all committed to finding a solution to Ivory Coast's problems. "We are meeting to look at the progress that has been made, with regard to the resolution of the Ivorian crisis, and to see what next should be done, in order to find a solution that everybody here wants," he said.

Mr. Mbeki said they will focus on practical results during the talks, which are expected to last about two days. He said all of the Ivorian leaders are eager to end the crisis.

There are roughly 10,000 U.N. and French troops enforcing the fragile cease-fire in Ivory Coast, and patrolling the buffer zone that keeps the two sides apart. Their mandate expires Monday, but the U.N. Security Council is expected to extend it for one month to see if the Pretoria talks make any progress.

The first item on the agenda in Pretoria is nationality and the controversial Article 35 of the Ivorian constitution, which has been used to exclude the opposition leader, Mr. Ouattara, from the presidential race, because of questions about his nationality. The rebels want him to be allowed to stand in the presidential election scheduled for October.

The agenda also includes disarmament, demobilization and reintegration of fighting forces, as well as a separate section on the disarmament of militias. The participants are also scheduled to discuss pending elections, and how to get the transitional unity government to work better.

Tensions have been rising in Ivory Coast since government forces shattered the cease-fire in November with a series of bombing raids. One airstrike killed nine French soldiers, and France retaliated by destroying Ivory Coast's entire air force. There have been sporadic clashes since then. U.N. peacekeepers say there has been a buildup of military activity in the turbulent western region of Ivory Coast.

A Human Rights Watch report last week accused the government of recruiting fighters from Liberia, including child soldiers.

On Friday, President Gbagbo's spokesman blamed the rebels for the failure of the peace process, saying the insurgents have refused to disarm in line with a peace deal signed in Marcoussis, France, more than two years ago.

U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan says Ivory Coast may, in his words, spin out of control, unless armed militias are brought under control nationwide.

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