South African President Thabo Mbeki is extending by one day his mediation efforts in strife-torn Ivory Coast, after meeting with rebels in the north. But his visit shows little sign of breaking the deadlock over stalled peace deals.
Tens of thousands of residents in the rebel stronghold of Bouake Sunday greeted Mr. Mbeki as a possible savior.
They said they had been waiting for this visit since the Ivory Coast military violated an 18-month cease-fire last month, bombing northern targets. French peacekeepers destroyed the small Ivorian air force after a French base was hit, ending those attacks.
After a brief ceremony, Mr. Mbeki went into talks with rebel leaders for several hours. They asked him to remove Ivory Coast President Laurent Gbagbo from the peacemaking process, saying they have lost confidence in him. They also accused him of craftily blocking the implementation of repeated peace deals, which would give equal rights to many northerners now treated as second class citizens.
Rebel spokesman Sidiki Konate said he was not impressed by Mr. Gbagbo's recent decision to submit a key constitutional change to parliament which would ease requirements for presidential candidates. "Mr. Gbagbo Laurent is a player, he is a showmaker. For two years, he could save the peace process and now because he is under pressure, so he try now to give a way but we are confident that Mr. Gbagbo Laurent will not do what he said. I think what is [needed] today, the international forces, Thabo Mbeki, take this process in their hands and it's for us the only guarantee," he said.
Rebels say the peace deal first signed in January 2003 should be implemented immediately rather than having to go through parliament and a planned referendum.
Rebel leaders also asked for better security in Abidjan to return to the struggling power-sharing reconciliation government. The hotel where they have been staying has been repeatedly attacked by supporters of Mr. Gbagbo.
A spokesman for Mr. Mbeki told VOA removing Mr. Gbagbo from the peace process was not possible since he was an elected leader.
Returning to Abidjan late Sunday, Mr. Mbeki said he now needed one more day to meet with Mr. Gbagbo again, after what he described as successful talks with the rebels. "We covered all of the elements that we believed needed to be answered immediately. I think this gives us a basis now to go back to Abidjan and sit down, the whole delegation to have specific proposals as to what to do," he said.
Mr. Gbagbo has been pressing Mr. Mbeki to get the rebels to disarm immediately. They have been holding northern Ivory Coast since September 2002.