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Ivory Coast Rebels Still Demanding  Gbagbo's Resignation


Rebels in Ivory Coast say they will stick to their demand that President Laurent Gbagbo step down when they begin peace negotiations.

Negotiators who mediated a cease-fire between the Ivory Coast government and rebels last Thursday are due to meet in the coming days to prepare for peace talks to end the month-long insurrection.

The job of bringing both sides together to talk has been difficult, and analysts say that negotiating a definite end to the crisis may prove to be even harder.

The government has been under public pressure to pursue a military solution, not a negotiated one. Government supporters have been holding rallies in Abidjan almost daily, demanding that loyalist troops penetrate rebel lines and attack the rebels.

Rebels, meanwhile, insist they will not withdraw their key demand: the resignation of President Gbagbo. The insurgents, who go by the name, the Patriotic Movement of Ivory Coast, say they want new elections because they believe the ones that put Mr. Gbagbo in power two years ago were flawed.

Guillaume Soro, the Secretary General of the rebel group, tells VOA his group would accept that Mr. Gbagbo be a candidate in the elections. He said his group believes it would be a good thing if Mr. Gbagbo ran in new elections. Mr. Soro said if the president believes he has majority support, he should test it. If Mr. Gbagbo wins, the rebel leader said the insurgents would then be convinced that his presidency is legitimate.

President Gbagbo, who has received the backing of African and Western leaders, has ruled out holding elections before the scheduled date of 2005.

The dispute has its roots in the year 2000 elections, when the military government that was in place at the time excluded all major candidates from running against the late military ruler, General Robert Guei.

To his surprise, General Guei lost to Laurent Gbagbo, but tried to declare himself the winner. A popular uprising drove the general out of power and Mr. Gbagbo was sworn in. Backers of opposition leader Alassane Ouattara battled in the streets with Gbagbo supporters, demanding new elections in which all major candidates could take part.

French troops this week took positions along the rebel zones to prevent each side from attacking the other while peace negotiations get under way.

While the cease-fire appears to be holding, the government has accused rebels of violating the terms of last Thursday's accord, saying insurgents have looted homes in the rebel-held city of Bouake.

On Monday, rebels and residents in the government-controlled city of Daloa said government soldiers had attacked Dioula-speaking northerners. The reports fueled continuing speculation that the conflict is being fought along ethnic lines between southern and western groups who dominate government and northerners who believe they have been shut out.

West African mediators are due to meet in Abidjan this week to discuss the framework of peace negotiations and plans for the eventual deployment of West African cease-fire monitors.

Meanwhile, tension remains high in Abidjan. Hundreds of government supporters tried to storm the gates of a French military base, where some demonstrators said they believed Alassane Ouattara was hiding. The crowd dispersed when French troops fired tear gas and stun grenades.

The conflict in Ivory Coast, the world's top producer of cocoa, has killed hundreds since it began on September 19.

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