The political parties and the rebel factions of the Ivory Coast sat down to talk peace in Paris Wednesday. Their talks, which will continue until January 23, are expected to be difficult. France and others have warned that the stability of Ivory Coast and the entire West African region is threatened by the civil war which has lasted four months and killed hundreds.
In an elegant meeting hall a few meters from the Arc de Triomphe, the Ivorian factions gathered around the table. They were welcomed by the French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin, who said France supported Ivory Coast, not one individual or faction.
The foreign minister said a political solution was the only way to guarantee a lasting peace, and building peace is harder than fighting.
At the table were representatives of Ivory Coast's four major political parties, members of the three rebel factions, and opposition leader Alassane Outtara.
Since the civil war began with a failed uprising in September, the rebels have gained control of more than half the country. They accuse the government of discriminating against Muslims, certain tribes, and foreigners.
And they are insisting that President Laurent Gbagbo step down and call early elections. The president says he will not resign, but he could consider an amnesty if the rebels disarm. Opposition leader Alassane Outtara says elections must come first.
"Democracy first, democracy is how we will get to peace. Democracy - new elections as soon as possible," he said.
The real bargaining will take place over the next nine days in a compound outside Paris. The delegates will be isolated from the public and the news media in the same kind of environment that the United States has used to produce agreements on Bosnia and Kosovo.
If the talks succeed President Gbagbo and other African heads of state are expected to attend a signing ceremony in Paris later in the month.