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Mediators Willing to Negotiate with Ivory Coast Rebels - 2002-10-02

Members of the West African group of mediators who are working to end a rebellion in Ivory Coast say the rebels are willing to enter negotiations as early as Thursday.

Ministers from six West African nations mediating the crisis are gathering in Abidjan to make preparations to meet with rebels who remain in control of much of the north and center of Ivory Coast.

The head of the West African delegation, Mohammad Chambas, spoke with VOA, saying he has talked with the rebels by phone. He said the rebels expressed a willingness to begin preliminary talks with the mediators soon. "We have made initial contacts. They were good. The other side was receptive and we have explained to them why we are here. We have been authorized by the heads of state of the sub-region to ask them to meet with us and to prepare the grounds for us to be able to find out what their grievances are so that we can end this crisis as quickly as possible," Mr. Chambras said. He said his delegation could be traveling to rebel-held areas as early as Thursday to open talks.

He said the West African contact team, made up of ministers from Ghana, Mali, Nigeria, Niger, Togo, and Guinea-Bissau, hopes to learn more about the insurgents when the first meeting is held. "The main feature of this crisis so far is what is unknown about the rebel side. It is a mystery. The speed with which things have developed, the extent to which they have been able to hold out, it is a mystery. This mystery is what we want to resolve very quickly. Who is behind it. What is involved. What interests are they pursuing here and why has it gone beyond what we knew it to be. We simply do not want it to spread or to drag on much longer," he said.

Mr. Chambas and members of the West African delegation met with Ivory Coast President Laurent Gbagbo on Monday. They reported the Ivorian leader said his government was willing to cooperate with the mediation process.

The crisis, in what was until recent years considered one of West Africa's most prosperous and stable nations, began on September 19 when renegade soldiers attacked military and police targets in various parts of the country.

Since then, hundreds have been killed and rebels have continued this week to take over new towns and villages in the center and north of the country. The latest fighting has been reported in the town of Tiebissou, about 40-kilometers north of the political capital, Yamoussoukro.

France, Ivory Coast's former colonial power, sent more troops to the region on Tuesday. A French contingent has been operating north of Yamoussoukro, aiming to stop rebel incursions to the south.

As mediation efforts got under way, thousands took to the streets of Abidjan to demonstrate support for the government and for peace efforts to end the crisis.