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France Backs Mbeki In Ivory Coast Mediation

The head of France's armed forces says he backs mediation efforts by South African President Thabo Mbeki in divided Ivory Coast. He also says French forces will remain until the international community deems this necessary.

General Henri Bentegeat ended a two-day visit Friday, saying France fully supports the work being accomplished by Mr. Mbeki to end the two year civil-war in the former French colony. He said Mr. Mbeki's peace initiative was very encouraging, and that northern-based rebels must begin disarming.

The visit followed assertive action in November by French forces, acting as a rapid reaction force, to stop military attacks in the north and anti-French protests in the south.

Mr. Mbeki has stepped in under an African Union mandate to get a stalled peace deal implemented and disarmament to begin.

Asked if French forces were preparing to leave, General Bentegeat said everything will depend on the choices of the international community. He said French troops were under a U.N. mandate to assist U.N. peacekeepers and that they would remain until they are asked to do so. Ivory Coast President Laurent Gbagbo has accused French troops of preventing the disarmament of rebels.

His supporters also say they plan legal action against French forces after the crackdown left at least 20 people dead. French officials have said their troops were acting to restore calm.

Rebels say they lack faith in Mr. Gbagbo to effectively implement the peace deal. New laws have been passed in parliament, but some of them were substantially changed from what was included in the French-brokered peace deal in January 2003.

The national assembly president, Mamadou Coulibaly, who is close to Mr. Gbagbo, was defiant about this in an interview with VOA. He says rebels should form a political party and then get a majority in parliament before changing the laws.

The peace deal aims to give many northerners now treated as second-class citizens equal rights. One key stumbling block has been a provision to ease eligibility requirements for the presidency, and whether it should go to a referendum before becoming law.

A U.N. report recently released by French and Ivorian newspapers outlines examples of death squads, mass executions, torture and rape throughout Ivory Coast since the war began in September 2002.

Just this week, violence in the central cocoa-heartland involving indigenous farmers and immigrants left at least 11 people dead.