Ivory Coast's President, Laurent Gbagbo, has told a French newspaper that he wants to to come to an agreement with rebels who control the northern and western parts of the country. Mr. Gbagbo's comments come just a week before the French government is scheduled to host Ivory Coast peace talks.
In an interview published by Le Parisien newspaper Wednesday, President Gbagbo called for a real debate with rebel leaders at the talks in Paris starting next Wednesday. Mr. Gbagbo said he is open to all options to end 16 weeks of conflict that has torn his West African country apart.
But he said he will not resign and call new elections, as the rebels demand. The Ivorian president said that could unleash a long civil war.
Mr. Gbagbo also said he was originally not aware that foreign mercenaries were fighting alongside his government troops. He told the newspaper he planned to kick them out of the country well before the matter was brought up last week, during a visit by French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin.
The president's remarks come as the French government is working to ensure the scheduled peace talks happen as planned.
The talks were put in doubt on Monday when rebels in western Ivory Coast attacked French troops. But a leader of one of the western rebel movements downplayed the fighting, saying it was started by isolated wild elements within the rebellion.
On Wednesday, the French news agency. AFP, reported that France's ambassador to Ivory Coast met with western rebel leaders, who have expressed interest in participating in the Paris meeting. The main rebel movement in the north initially said the new fighting might cause it to boycott the Paris talks. But officials now say they will attend.
French involvement in the Ivory Coast conflict has received mixed reviews from President Gbagbo and rebel leaders. In the past, Mr. Gbagbo criticized Paris for not doing enough to help him - and particularly for not offering major military assistance. But he told Le Parisien that what he called difficult moments with France are now part of the past.
The rebels have denounced French forces for blocking their advance toward Abidjan. Some 2,500 French troops now stationed in Ivory Coast were originally assigned mainly to protect French and foreign residents, but their duties have since expanded include enforcing a shaky ceasefire.