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Main Ivorian Rebel Group to Attend Paris Peace Talks - 2003-01-04

The foreign minister of France says the main rebel group in Ivory Coast has agreed to attend peace talks in Paris later this month. The announcement comes after the Ivorian president pledged to observe a total cease-fire.

French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin says the rebel faction controlling most of northern and central Ivory Coast has agreed to attend peace talks in Paris beginning on January 15. He says the talks are scheduled to last about a week, and he hopes they will include all of Ivory Coast's political and rebel groups.

A follow-up summit of West African leaders will then convene in Paris at the end of the month to discuss the crisis.

Mr. de Villepin made the announcement after meeting with leaders of the rebel faction known as the Patriotic Movement of Ivory Coast, or MPCI, in its stronghold of Bouake. Leaders of the other two rebel groups, operating in the west, had been invited but did not attend. It is not clear whether they will attend the Paris talks.

The French foreign minister says it is important to have a cease-fire that includes all three rebel factions.

The current cease-fire - which has been repeatedly violated - includes only the government and the northern rebels.

France has sent roughly 2,500 troops to its former colony to enforce the truce. Mr. de Villepin made his unexpected two-day visit to Ivory Coast after violence erupted on two fronts Wednesday.

Rebels in the west on Wednesday claimed to have taken control of a town near the Liberian border, opening up a new front hundreds of kilometers south of any previous fighting. There were widespread reports that Liberian fighters crossed the border and went on a rampage through the town of Neka, killing many people. But no foreign journalists have been able to reach the village to confirm those stories.

Meanwhile, French peacekeepers have confirmed the Ivory Coast government violated the cease-fire on Wednesday when helicopter gunships killed 12 civilians in an attack on the rebel-held village of Menakro, not far from Bouake.

France has strongly condemned the attack. After meeting with Mr. de Villepin, Ivorian President Laurent Gbagbo has pledged to observe a total cease-fire on all fronts, and to ground the helicopter gunships that attacked Menakro.

The French foreign minister has also convinced the northern MPCI rebels to respect the existing cease-fire, which they had said they considered invalidated by the government attack.