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Ivory Coast President Signals Compromise With Rebels - 2002-11-20


Ivory Coast President Laurent Gbagbo says he is willing to hold a referendum to change the country's constitution. Some analysts see the move as a sign the government may be open to compromise with rebels to end a two-month-old insurrection in the West African country.

An overhaul of the constitution is on the list of demands of rebels who launched a failed coup attempt on September 19th and continue to hold about 40 percent of the country.

In remarks to business leaders in Abidjan Tuesday, President Gbagbo said he is open in principle to the idea of holding a referendum next year in which the people would decide whether the constitution should be changed.

Many of the rebels are from Ivory Coast's north, a political stronghold of opposition leader Alassane Ouattara. A court cited the current constitution in barring Mr. Ouattara from running in the last presidential elections. His exclusion touched off a political crisis that had persisted before the rebellion broke out.

President Gbagbo's statement, carried on state television, came amid a deadlock in peace negotiations that have been going on in Togo for three weeks.

Rebels on Tuesday presented a new set of proposals for a peace accord. Although they did not give details of what their offer contained, rebel leaders said their proposals call for a new political order in Ivory Coast.

The rebels' main demands include the resignation of President Gbagbo and the holding of new elections. The government has ruled out both requests and has insisted on the immediate disarmament of the insurgents.

Rebel leaders on Tuesday said they continued to consider their demands realistic. The rebels have refused to disarm, saying they will not do so until after the crisis is settled. The conflict killed hundreds in the first month of hostilities.

A cease-fire has largely been holding for more than a month. Both sides, however, have said they are ready to resume attacks if their terms are not met.

The crisis has crippled the economy of Ivory Coast, which analysts say accounts for about 40 percent of the region's economic output.

Tensions remained high in Abidjan, amid rising sentiments against France, the former colonial power in Ivory Coast.

Witnesses said police on Tuesday detonated an incendiary device that was placed next to a gasoline station operated by a French company. Officials also reported an unidentified caller had phoned in a bomb threat to a French school in the city. The threat turned out to be false.

The bomb scares came a day after Charles Ble Goudie, the leader of the youth wing of President Gbagbo's political party, went on state television and called on the French ambassador to leave the country.

Supporters of President Gbagbo resent the French diplomat for giving refuge at his home to Alassane Ouattara. Government leaders have accused Mr. Ouattara of supporting the rebels, a charge Mr. Ouattara denies.

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