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Ivorian Northern Rebels Refuse to Negotiate with President Gbagbo - 2004-04-14

Ivory Coast rebels in control of the country's north deny reports they are planning to split from the rest of the country. But the New Forces rebels say they will not hold talks with President Laurent Gbagbo.

The New Forces spokesman, Sidiki Konate, says the rebels will not negotiate with President Laurent Gbagbo, until he is exonerated by a U.N. investigating committee from responsibility for the brutal suppression of a pro-peace march last month in Abidjan.

The demonstration was organized by opposition parties to push for the implementation of a 15-month-old peace agreement. But the participants were attacked by government security forces who killed dozens of people. The death toll figure varies widely, with the government saying 37 people died and opposition leaders placing the number killed at 500 or more.

President Gbagbo has banned all public demonstrations until April 30 on the grounds they undermine the government's authority.

The northern rebels did not take part in the protest last month, but blamed President Gbagbo for the violence and demanded his resignation.

The U.N. office in Abidjan announced Tuesday it was forming an independent committee to investigate last month's violence, and appointed three members - two from Africa and an Italian - to conduct the probe.

Rebel spokesman Konate said, while New Forces will not talk to the president, its leaders and members of the opposition met with Prime Minister Seydou Diarra late Tuesday to discuss implementation of the peace process.

"We have no secession because Seydou Diarra is in Abidjan and we recognize Seydou Diarra but we do not recognize Mr. Gbagbo now," he said. "It is very simple because before the result of this international commission, we do not know if Mr. Gbagbo, I am sorry, is a criminal or if he is a head of state so we are waiting."

He said the rebels and opposition leaders gave the prime minister conditions under which they would take part in the peace process. Among other things, they demanded that the government allows citizens to demonstrate without fear of violence, maintain freedom of the press and hold a memorial service for the victims of last month's violence.

Mr. Konate said Prime Minister Diarra has agreed to allow the memorial service to take place on April 24 in Abidjan and promised to provide security for the event.

Rumors of secession began circulating in Abidjan last week, following a speech by northern rebel leader Guillaume Soro, in which he said the north no longer needed the government's support.

The rebel spokesman said Mr. Soro did not mean to imply the New Forces would withdraw from the peace process and split Ivory Coast in two.