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Ivory Coast President  Appeals for Unity in New Year's Message - 2003-12-31

The president of Ivory Coast has called for the implementation of a stalled peace deal to end a more than year-long civil war, but he says key points should be submitted to a referendum.

Speaking late Wednesday on state television to mark the start of the New Year, President Laurent Gbagbo said the peace deal brokered by France almost a year ago is the only way for Ivory Coast to become reunited.

But Mr. Gbagbo said new laws mandated by the peace deal, concerning nationality requirements and land ownership rights, must be submitted to a referendum.

The rebels who have been in control of the northern half of Ivory Coast since their insurgency began in September 2002 had previously accused Mr. Gbagbo of blocking implementation of the peace deal. It includes giving voting and land ownership rights to many northerners now considered immigrants.

The rebels have said they will rejoin a power-sharing government starting January 6, after a three-month boycott, because they say they have been given assurances the peace process can now move forward.

French Defense Minister Michele Alliot-Marie was in Ivory Coast Wednesday to spend New Year's festivities with French peacekeeping troops in the country and to meet with Ivorian officials. She said France's role has been a neutral one, mainly aimed at saving lives.

The deployment of French troops in the south and along front lines late last year effectively ended fighting, but it also divided Ivory Coast into the government-run south and the rebel-held north.

Mrs. Alliot-Marie says French troops will now deploy throughout Ivory Coast, including all parts of the rebel-held north, to help make disarmament and lasting peace possible. Several thousand West African peacekeeping troops have also been deployed in divided Ivory Coast, the world's leading cocoa producer.