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Absences Set Back Ivory Coast Reconciliation Conference - 2001-11-12

Ivory Coast's National Reconciliation Forum is back to square one after two of the country's political leaders turned down a formal invitation to attend Tuesday's session of the conference. Monday's announcements may dim the forum's hopes for ending the country's two-year-old political crisis.

The forum had officially opened October 9 in a bid to end a social and political crisis triggered by General Robert Guei's military coup in December, 1999.

Political parties, religious groups and civic organizations spent the first month of the forum complaining about the ills that have afflicted the country since that time. Their conclusions are to be presented to the current president, Laurent Gbagbo, when the forum ends one month from now.

President Gbagbo and the country's other three main political leaders have been invited to speak at the forum Tuesday. Their presence would widely be seen as a boost to the two-month old conference. However, only President Laurent Gbagbo and former President Henri Konan Bedie have said they would attend.

On Monday, General Guei, who overthrew Mr. Bedie in 1999, said he would not come to the forum as long as he is not given the legal status of a former head of state. That would grant him extensive privileges.

General Guei also wants legal protection for the soldiers who accompanied him into domestic exile when he was ousted in a popular uprising one year ago.

Earlier in the day, leaders of the Rally of the Republicans party had announced their leader, Alassane Ouattara, would not go to the forum unless his Ivorian citizenship and political and civil rights are fully recognized.

Courts barred Mr. Ouattara from running for president last year, because of questions surrounding his citizenship. Mr. Ouattara has always denied his opponents' claim that he was once a citizen of Burkina Faso.

Forum spokesman Honora de Yedagne said he still hopes Mr. Ouattara and General Guei will attend the proceedings. But he added their absence would not jeopardize the forum's overall prospects for success.