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Ivory Coast Rebel Faction Pulls out of Peace Talks - 2003-01-10

Rebels with one of three insurgent factions in Ivory Coast have announced they will not attend next week's scheduled peace negotiations in France. The move, a setback in efforts to end a nearly four-month old insurrection, came after rebels accused the government of attacking their positions for a second day.

A leader of the Ivorian Popular Movement of the Far West, Guillaume Gbatto, told reporters the group will boycott the talks because, they said, loyalist forces had launched attacks on the western towns of Toulepleu and Blolekin Friday.

The reported assaults came a day after the same rebel group accused the government of using helicopter gunships to fire on the town of Grabo, killing at least 15 people.

French army spokesman Lieutenant-Colonel Ange-Antoine Lecchia told VOA a team of French soldiers was dispatched Friday to investigate the reports.

He said he could not confirm that the attacks took place as reported on Thursday and Friday, since no French troops were in the area at the time. If the reports are true, he added, it would be unfortunate because Ivory Coast needs some stability in order to re-launch peace negotiations and find a non-military solution to the rebel crisis.

All sides had recently agreed to cease hostilities before the talks' scheduled start in Paris on Wednesday.

The absence of one of the rebel groups from the negotiations has some here in Ivory Coast wondering whether the talks will get under way at all.

Richard Kehi, a young laborer in Abidjan's working-class Youpougon district, says he has lost confidence in the government but does not trust the rebels' intentions, either. He hopes that France, the former colonial power in Ivory Coast, can figure out a solution.

He said the war has gone for much too long and something must be done to return things to normal. Mr. Kehi thinks it is only France at this point who can tell the rebels to put down their weapons and allow the president to do his work.

President Laurent Gbagbo last week promised visiting French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin the army would stop air attacks, which have been largely carried out by foreign mercenaries hired by the government.

The French Foreign Ministry on Thursday reminded the Gbagbo government of its commitment to stop the air attacks ahead of next week's meeting in Paris.

The French government has been eager to end the nearly four-month-old insurrection that has killed hundreds and left the once-stable West African country divided.

More than 2,000 French troops are deployed in Ivory Coast, which is home to tens of thousands of French nationals.