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West African Leaders to Meet Wednesday For Talks on Ivory Coast - 2002-12-17

West Africa's most powerful leaders have planned urgent high-level talks on the situation in Ivory Coast. The summit is aimed at ending a crisis that has threatened to destabilize the entire region.

Leaders from the regional group ECOWAS, the Economic Community of West African States, are due to meet Wednesday in Dakar, Senegal, in a last-ditch effort to save the crumbling Ivory Coast peace process.

The summit was originally scheduled for Ghana, but was moved to Dakar after leaders of four powerful West African nations met with Ivorian President Laurent Gbagbo late Monday at the Abidjan airport. The presidents of Senegal, Nigeria, Liberia and Ghana flew to Ivory Coast to brief Mr. Gbagbo after an earlier round of talks in the northern Togolese town of Kara.

In Kara, they met with representatives of the main Ivorian rebel group, as well as with Togolese President Gnassingbe Eyadema, who has been brokering peace talks since October.

Negotiations have been deadlocked since the emergence of two new rebel groups last month. The West African leaders went to Kara to re-evaluate the peace process and decide whether a new approach is needed.

They have made few remarks to the news media, but it appears that they decided the situation is dire enough to warrant a flurry of high-level meetings over the following two days. Before the ECOWAS summit in Dakar begins Wednesday afternoon, representatives of a six-nation contact group on Ivory Coast will meet to discuss the crisis as well.

It is not clear whether the Ivorian rebels will attend the Dakar meeting. Spokesmen for the main rebel group, the Patriotic Movement of Ivory Coast, say their negotiators were stranded in Kara after the talks ended there. It was not clear when they would be able to return to the Togolese capital, Lome, let alone whether they would be able to make it to Senegal by Wednesday afternoon.

Things are looking increasingly desperate for the rebels, especially since France has decided to send more troops to Ivory Coast to enforce a shaky cease-fire in its former colony. The French soldiers have been authorized to shoot anyone who is seen seriously violating the truce, although the two newest rebel groups have not actually signed it.

ECOWAS has also pledged to send a peacekeeping force to Ivory Coast, but it has not yet been deployed.

Senegalese President Abdoulaye Wade has indicated that the West African leaders are backing President Gbagbo. Mr. Wade told Ivorian state radio that ECOWAS, in his words, cannot allow the current situation in Ivory Coast to persist. He also said the legitimacy of President Gbagbo, who was democratically elected, cannot be called into doubt.