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Ivorian Rebels Open Economic Summit - 2003-11-08

Rebels based in the northern part of Ivory Coast have opened an economic summit aimed at helping civilians in areas under their control.

The four-day forum opened Saturday in the rebel stronghold of Bouake.

It is bringing together rebel leaders, businessmen from Ivory Coast and neighboring countries and representatives from non-governmental organizations.

Rebel spokesman Antoine Beugre says the aim is to help landlocked northern Ivorians who have been cut off from southern Ivory Coast since the start of the civil war last year.

Mr. Beugre says rebels who call themselves New Forces want to fight poverty in the north, reopen hospitals, which have been shut down and start up a new school year.

Participants will also discuss problems linked to the circulation of goods and tax collection.

The forum comes several days before a political summit in Ghana to revive the faltering Ivorian peace process. Rebels, President Laurent Gbagbo and West African leaders have been invited to attend the summit scheduled to begin Tuesday in Accra.

In September, rebels pulled out of a power-sharing government, accusing Laurent Gbagbo of refusing to share power with his ministers and prime minister Seydou Diarra of the reconciliation government.

Rebel spokesman Beugre says the summit in Ghana is the last chance for peace. He says he hopes it will open the doors for what he calls real reconciliation.

The rebels want President Gbagbo to implement a French-brokered peace plan that includes giving voting rights to many northern Ivorians now considered foreigners.

President Gbagbo has called on the rebels to disarm immediately and to open up the north to his administration. Members of his ruling party have also warned they will not tolerate what they call secessionist initiatives by rebels.

Ivory Coast has been effectively cut in two since French peacekeepers deployed late last year along front lines separating rebels and the Ivorian army.