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French Foreign Minister Arrives in Ivory Coast - 2003-01-03


The French foreign minister has arrived in Ivory Coast for urgent talks aimed at ending the country's civil war. The hastily arranged trip comes just two days after an upsurge in fighting.

After arriving in Abidjan early in the afternoon, French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin immediately went into talks with Ivorian President Laurent Gbagbo.

After the meeting, a small crowd of angry demonstrators outside the president's home briefly kept the foreign minister from leaving.

During his two-day trip, he is also expected to meet with leaders of a new West African peacekeeping force. The first contingent of West African soldiers also arrived in Abidjan Friday.

Mr. de Villepin is due to fly to the capital, Yamoussoukro, early Saturday, and then proceed to the rebel stronghold of Bouake to meet with rebel leaders.

He is expected to urge all sides in the conflict to go to Paris for an urgent round of peace talks. Before leaving France, the foreign minister told a French newspaper he wants a quick resolution to the crisis, and a cease-fire respected by all parties.

He told Le Parisien the presence of some 2,500 French troops has so far kept what he called "an open crisis" from turning into "a catastrophe."

The foreign minister's unexpected visit to the former French colony comes two days after clashes on two different fronts added a new urgency to the peace efforts.

France has strongly condemned a government helicopter attack New Year's Day on a rebel-held village in central Ivory Coast, saying any violation of the existing cease-fire is "unacceptable." French peacekeepers say the attack on the town of Menakro killed at least 12 civilians, although the rebels claim the death toll is higher. An Ivorian government spokesman says the targets were military, not civilian.

The rebel faction holding northern and central Ivory Coast signed a cease-fire with the government in October. The other two rebel factions, operating in the west, have not signed any cease-fire deal.

But the northern rebel leader now says the government attack on Menakro has essentially voided the cease-fire, giving his fighters what he calls "carte blanche" to launch a full scale offensive.

Meanwhile, the western rebels opened a new front on Wednesday when they took control of the village of Neka, near the Liberian border, some 200 kilometers south of the site of any previous fighting. There have been unconfirmed reports that Liberian fighters went on a rampage through Neka, killing many civilians.

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