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Ivory Coast Rebels Willing to Negotiate with Government - 2002-09-22


Rebels in Ivory Coast say they are willing to enter negotiations with the government. The announcement came Sunday, as a military convoy of armored vehicles and tanks approached two northern cities that remained under the control of anti-government forces.

Speaking from their bases in the central Ivory Coast city of Bouake and the northern town of Korhogo, rebels said they would be willing to negotiate with the government, if France, which is the former colonial power here, would intervene. There was no comment from French officials.

The rebels attacked targets in the two cities, and in Abidjan on Thursday. Loyalist forces secured Abidjan after a day of fierce gun and mortar battles that the government says killed at least 270 people. Officials describe the mutiny as an all-out coup attempt.

The government has since been calling on the mutineers to lay down their weapons. One mutineer in Korhogo, who withheld his name, said rebels will not give up, until the government agrees to their demands, including the reintegration of deserters into the army, and the release from prison of military and paramilitary police officers. He said soldiers also want better salaries. He said it is up to government forces to decide if they want to go through with the assault. "We are ready to push our agenda," he said, "even if it means many people will die."

The French government on Sunday deployed troops to reinforce the approximately 600 French soldiers permanently stationed in Abidjan. French officials say the reinforcements were sent to help with the possible evacuation of French nationals and other foreigners. About 20,000 French citizens live in Ivory Coast, where France has maintained strong economic interests.

Tensions remained high in Abidjan Sunday, as heavily-armed troops continue to patrol the streets. The country remains under a 14-hour nighttime curfew. Residents ventured out of their homes Sunday only to search for food. Hundreds crowded into stores, where shelves were starting to look bare of items such as fresh meat, eggs and vegetables.

Ivory Coast's main opposition party, led by former Prime Minister Alassane Ouattara, says security forces set fire to Mr. Ouattara's home early Sunday. The opposition leader has been taking refuge at the French ambassador's residence. An official with Mr. Ouattara's Rally of the Republicans Party accused government supporters in the army of using the coup attempt to attack various opposition leaders.

General Robert Guei, who led the country's first-ever military coup in 1999, was accused of leading Thursday's coup attempt. The general was among those killed in Thursday's violence.

His wife, son, and grandchildren were also gunned down in an attack on the Guei home in Abidjan.

Former President Henri Konan Bedie, another of Ivory Coast's main political players, fled his home and found refuge at the Canadian ambassador's residence.

Observers on Sunday said they worried that an army attack on cities to the north could cause longstanding ethnic and political tensions to explode between forces in the mostly Muslim north and those in the predominantly Christian south and west.

Ivory Coast, the world's largest cocoa producer, was seen as a model for stability in the region, until it was plunged into three years of strife that followed the 1999 military coup.

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