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Ivorians Hope Peace Talks Can Help Heal Ethnic Divide - 2003-01-15

Talks near Paris this week seek to end a conflict in Ivory Coast that began last September when renegade soldiers launched a failed coup attempt against President Laurent Gbagbo. Ivorians hope the talks will help resolve longstanding political issues that have deepened ethnic divides in the once-stable West-African country.

Many of the mutinous soldiers who launched the September coup attempt were from Ivory Coast's largely Muslim north. They complained of discrimination by Mr. Gbagbo's smaller, and largely Christian, Bete tribe.

Northerners complain Betes have disproportionately held key positions in government and in the military since Mr. Gbagbo came to power in the year 2000.

The rebellion has grown over the months. The main insurgent faction is the northern-based Patriotic Movement of Ivory Coast. Two other factions, the Movement for Peace and Justice and the Ivorian Popular Movement of the Far West, began in late November in the west of the country.

With the north and west in the hands of insurgents, only the south remains under the government's control.

Ivory Coast was until recently hailed as the most prosperous and stable country in West Africa, thanks to the policies of its founding president, the late Felix Houghouet-Boigny. He promoted harmony among the country's various ethnic groups by granting top government posts to people of diverse backgrounds.

The economy, based on the production of cocoa, coffee, and timber, flourished as a result of Mr. Houghouet-Boigny's free-market policies and his close ties to the West, especially to the former colonial power, France.

With a relatively prosperous economy, Ivory Coast welcomed millions of immigrant workers from neighboring West African countries. So much so, that one-third of the Ivorian population is now made up of immigrants, mainly from neighboring Burkina Faso.

After Mr. Houghouet-Boigny's death in 1993, Ivory Coast's economy slid into decline as a result of falling cocoa prices and mismanagement. Politicians resorted to blaming foreigners for the countries woes, and began promoting "Ivoirite," or pride in being a native Ivorian and not of foreign heritage.

Ivory Coast's peaceful image was shattered in 1999, six years after Houghouet-Boigny's death, when it experienced its first-ever military coup.

The military regime, under coup leader General Robert Guei, organized elections to return the country to civilian rule in 2000. The general sought to remain in power and declared himself a candidate.

The country's constitutional court disqualified most major candidates who would have challenged the general. Most notably among the excluded was former Prime Minister Alassane Ouattara, a Muslim northerner.

The only well-known candidate allowed to run was Laurent Gbagbo, a longtime opposition leader and socialist, who political analysts say reached a deal with the general to stay in the race and later take a post as prime minister.

The reported deal fell apart when the vote-counting showed Mr. Gbagbo well ahead of General Guei in the race. The general tried to steal the election by declaring himself the winner.

Mr. Gbagbo called his supporters to the streets in a popular uprising that forced the general to flee Abidjan.

After days of bloody street clashes, Laurent Gbagbo was sworn in as president for a five-year term.

All three rebel factions that took up arms against the government charge the 2000 elections were flawed. They want new elections in which everyone, including Mr. Ouattara, is allowed to run. Their chief demand is that Mr. Gbagbo resign.

France, which is mediating the talks this week, wants to see a quick end to the conflict that has killed hundreds and displaced thousands more. The French government has more than 2,000 troops monitoring cease-fire agreements in Ivory Coast, and preventing an advance by rebel forces into the main city, Abidjan.

The deployment is the biggest engagement France has had in Africa in years, and many French are nervous of the prospect of drawn-out involvement. The French also have huge interests in the former colony's cocoa, coffee, telecommunications, timber, manufacturing, and other industries.

Ivory Coast is home to tens of thousands of French expatriates, many of whom have lived here all or most of their lives.

Jean-Max Mezzadri, a French national, has lived in Ivory Coast since 1969 and heads the Federation of French Expatriates.

He said French expatriates are attached to this country. Certainly, he said, they do not want to leave. They want to help return stability and economic prosperity to Ivory Coast's economy.

Stability in Ivory Coast, he said, would mean France would not have to worry about creating jobs for the thousands who have to return in the event of an evacuation.

Western diplomats in Ivory Coast say France will press for political concessions from President Gbagbo that will lead to early elections. They say rebels at the talks will be pressed to demobilize in exchange for the political concessions.

Although both sides appear to be unwavering on their demands as they go into the talks, many people in Abidjan remain hopeful that the French will get both sides to sign a peace deal.

Officer worker Valentin Diegou said he was discouraged after a recent round of peace negotiations failed in nearby Togo. Like many Ivorians, he says he hopes the French will be able exercise their authority and get both sides to reach a peace agreement.

He said the talks are an opportunity that both sides should seize. France, he said, is our mother, and it should therefore help us. And on top of that, Mr. Diegou said, French interests are threatened too, along with ours. He said, 'we are together in this.'

Aside from negotiating an end to the fighting, many people in Abidjan say they hope the Paris talks will put all sides on track to finding a solution to their country's political and ethnic problems. That, they say, will be the only way to ensure lasting peace and a return to stability.