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France, Ivory Coast Presidents Meet to Put Aside Differences - 2004-02-05


The presidents of France and Ivory Coast have signaled they have put aside long-simmering differences over the Ivorian peace process, and want to move forward with steps leading to the disarmament of Ivorian rebel forces.

There was no joint news conference following the luncheon meeting between French President Jacques Chirac and his Ivorian counterpart Laurent Gbagbo at the Elysee presidential palace. But both sides let it be known that a new page had turned in relations between Paris and Abidjan, after months of disagreements.

In a statement issued by his spokeswoman, Catherine Colonna, Mr. Chirac praised progress toward implementing the so-called Marcoussis peace accords signed just over a year ago between the Ivorian government and rebel leaders. But he said more needs to be done.

And in brief remarks to reporters, Mr. Gbagbo said he is leaving Paris "as a happy man."

The two governments have been at odds over the peace accords, which Gbagbo loyalists denounced as being imposed by Paris. The plan allotted rebels positions in the new Ivorian government, and set in motion a process to give citizenship to many of Mr. Gbagbo's opponents.

Anti-French demonstrations in Ivory Coast and the killing of a French reporter by an Ivorian police officer last October only heightened the tensions between the two governments. Mr. Gbagbo's visit to Paris was postponed several times.

The official reconciliation process began Sunday with a visit to Abidjan by French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin. Mr. Gbagbo flew Tuesday to Paris, and is due to leave France this weekend.

He told reporters that he and Mr. Chirac agreed that disarming rebel fighters is crucial if peace is to return to Ivory Coast. Rebels say Mr. Gbagbo must take certain steps first, including opening up the country's political process.

The French government is also working to get approval for a six-thousand-member U.N. peacekeeping force in Ivory Coast to supplement French and West African troops. But the French initiative is meeting resistance from the United States, which considers the idea costly and prefers a regional peacekeeping alternative, similar to the force in Sierra Leone.

Meanwhile tensions remain in Ivory Coast, more than two years after a failed coup ignited a nationwide conflict dividing the country's north and south.

Mr. Gbagbo also met with leaders of France's opposition Socialist Party, and with Ivorian soccer stars who play for European teams.

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