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Ivory Coast President Wants Talks with Opposition, Rebels - 2004-06-21

Ivorian President Laurent Gbagbo says he needs help from West African neighbors to move the stalled peace process in divided Ivory Coast forward. His statement came just hours after fighting between rival factions broke out in the rebel-held north.

In a televised speech Monday, Mr. Gbagbo said the presidents of Togo, Nigeria and Ghana will intervene in the coming days to discuss with all sides to save the beleaguered peace process.

He also said Ivorians must work with the more than 7,000 French and United Nations peacekeepers now deployed throughout Ivory Coast, and that they should not be considered as enemies, as some of his supporters insist. Finally, he said he was open to dialogue.

His speech came after weeks of extensive travel abroad, including a summit in Nigeria with West African leaders Sunday.

The opposition and rebels have been boycotting talks with Mr. Gbagbo and the national unity government since March after accusing Mr. Gbagbo of acting like a dictator and blocking implementation of the power-sharing peace accord which was signed in January 2003.

Earlier Monday, the opposition and rebels said they were open to renewed dialogue with President Gbagbo but they also outlined a series of demands including guaranteeing security for ministers in the power-sharing government.

Reading a statement co-signed with Prime Minister Seydou Diarra, opposition spokesman Alphonse Dje Dje Mady called on the United Nations to act on a recent U.N. report which blames the highest state authorities for killing over 100 opposition supporters during a pro-peace protest in Abidjan in March.

Tuesday, the UN Security Council is scheduled to begin a two-day visit to Ivory Coast. Rebel spokesman Sidiki Konate says he hopes the delegation will force Mr. Gbagbo to understand he must compromise and let others take the lead in implementing the peace deal.

"We are waiting for the United Nations to make pressure against Mr. Laurent Gbagbo so that he permits this government to work easily," he said. "That means [Prime Minister] Mr. Seydou Diarra has the power he needs to apply this agreement."

The accord calls for giving equal rights to many northerners now considered foreigners. The offer for renewed talks on both sides comes just several hours after more than 20 people were killed during fighting between rival rebel factions in northern areas. One of those killed, a commander known as "Kass", was a key ally of exiled former 1999 coup plotter Ibrahim Coulibaly, a former bodyguard, who says he wants to take over leadership of the rebel movement.

Mr. Konate says current rebel leader Guillaume Soro escaped an assassination attempt during the fighting Monday, and that calm has now returned to the north. Rebels also accuse Mr. Gbagbo and mercenaries from Guinea of being behind the unrest.

Both the governments in Abidjan and Conakry deny this.