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Ivory Coast Peace Talks May Be Hampered by Recent Clashes, say Rebels - 2003-01-07

The main rebel group in Ivory Coast said a clash on Monday involving French peacekeepers threatens peace talks proposed by France. The French defense minister is downplaying the incident.

The leader of the main rebel group, Guillaume Soro, said Monday's clash between rebels and French troops seriously compromises the peace talks scheduled to begin in Paris on January 15.

Mr. Soro's faction controls most of northern and central Ivory Coast. It was not the group that clashed with the French on Monday in the west of the country.

Thirty rebels were killed and nine French soldiers were wounded in the fighting near the strategically important western town of Duekoue, according to French officials. A French military spokesman says rebel fighters launched mortars at two different French positions outside Duekoue.

The French defense minister has blamed the fighting on what she calls uncontrolled elements who do not answer to any of the three rebel factions.

An Ivorian government spokesman told the AFP news agency he thinks the renegades were trying to provoke a major incident and derail the peace process.

The clash in Duekoue was the bloodiest skirmish involving French troops since they began enforcing the shaky cease-fire in Ivory Coast two months ago. France has deployed roughly 2,500 soldiers to its former colony, and previous clashes have been described as relatively minor incidents.

The French foreign minister has invited all sides in the conflict to attend peace talks in Paris beginning next week. Before Monday's battle, the government and two of the main rebel groups all said they would attend. But after Mr. Soro's statement, it is not clear whether that is still true.

Meanwhile, the president of Senegal said he has approached the United Nations about deploying U.N. peacekeepers in Ivory Coast. Senegalese President Abdoulaye Wade, who also heads the regional group ECOWAS, made the remarks late Monday in Dakar.

Mr. Wade told reporters he feels regional efforts to end the crisis in Ivory Coast have failed. But he said he has high hopes for the proposed peace talks in France.

In another development, a French journalist working for the Reuters news agency was detained overnight by Ivorian police in the port city of San Pedro. They accused her of spying for the rebels. The reporter was released without charge in Abidjan Tuesday, and authorities now say her arrest was due to a misunderstanding.

Foreign journalists have repeatedly been harassed by government loyalists, who accuse the international media of favoring the rebels.