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Ivorian Reconciliation Talks Suspended

Talks about reunification of Ivory Coast's government-run south and rebel-held north have been suspended following two days of fruitless negotiations. The delay is a blow to the Ivorian peace process.

The reconciliation government was planning to meet in Abidjan to continue discussing the implementation of a stalled peace deal, but further discussions have been postponed for at least a week.

Rebels ended a nearly-four month boycott of government meetings on Tuesday. U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan praised the move, and said this brings new hope for the peace process in Ivory Coast.

But two days of discussions between the rebels and the government were marred by divisions. The main rebel leader and communications minister, Guillaume Soro, did not show up for the talks.

President Laurent Gbagbo has called for key points in the peace deal to be submitted to a referendum, but rebels say this could be disruptive to the peace process.

The key points include expanding nationality, voting and land ownership rights to many northerners who are now considered immigrants.

The civil war, which started in September 2002, divided the country in two and wrecked its position as a regional trading hub.

The peace deal was reached a year ago, but discussions on its implementation are only just beginning. In a message marking the New Year, President Gbagbo said he was confident 2004 would mark a return to peace, the reunification of Ivory Coast and a much needed economic recovery.

But in the Plateau Market close to government buildings, a clothing salesman - who says his name is Daniel - is skeptical.

"We do not see customers every day as the past," he said. "But now you need peace, and we beg God to give us a good situation, to get money and share money with everybody. I beg my friends to let down the guns. Because people need peace to do good business. Without peace, they can do no business. Yes that is what I ask of people of Ivory Coast."

The crisis has prompted the departure of thousands of French expatriates, and with them, investment money from Ivory Coast's former colonial power. Several international organizations have also moved their headquarters from Abidjan, and tourism has ground to a halt.

A tradesman at the Cocody market, Monney Nicaise, says as long as the northern rebels remain armed, foreigners will not come to Ivory Coast.

"Here, before the war, the market was with high activities, many customers, many tourists and foreign people come here to buy many things with us," he said. "So with the war from the 19 of September 2002, everything has changed now."

The process of disarming the rebels, which began last month with both sides pulling heavy weaponry from front lines, has also bogged down in unproductive talks.