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Ivory Coast Rebel Leader Returns to Abidjan

Ivory Coast rebel leader Guillaume Soro is expected to rejoin the war-divided nation's reconciliation government Wednesday. Soro spent his first day back in the commercial capital in consultations with the country's political leadership.

Guillaume Soro returned to Abidjan Tuesday under armed U.N. escort about 1 1/2 years after his last visit when he stopped going to cabinet meetings.

During his first week-long trip to the commercial capital, the leader of the northern New Forces rebels is due to meet with top political leaders including former President Henri Konan Bedie, popular northern opposition leader Alassane Ouattara, and the head of the recently appointed transitional government, Prime Minister Charles Konan Banny.

His first meeting Tuesday morning was with President Laurent Gbagbo, whose forces have held on to the southern half of the country since fighting erupted in late 2002.

Soro, who was named minister of reconstruction in December, the second highest position in the government, pulled out of the previous interim body in October 2004. Fighting resumed for several days the following month. And a stalemate over the implementation of a three-year-old peace deal forced a presidential election scheduled for last October to be pushed back a year.

However, New Forces spokesman Cisse Sindou says the rebels are now ready to do their part to pave the way for the elections.

"The Forces Nouvelles, we are confident that the peace process is on the right track, and we think it is time that Guillaume Soro joins the team to play his role. He has an important role as the number two in the government to really maintain the momentum," he said.

Soro, Ouattara, Mr. Bedie and President Gbagbo, the four principal figures in the three-and-a-half-year-old conflict, met last month in the administrative capital Yamoussoukro at the urging of Prime Minister Banny.

The event was the first such meeting on Ivorian soil since the war began, and all four men renewed their commitment to go forward with a new U.N.-backed road map for peace.

Spokesman Sindou says the rebels have been reassured by progress made in the past months under the new prime minister.

"A lot of things have changed," he noted. " The spirit of the peace process, we think there's a good change. There's a new prime minister, there's a new (way of) seeing things. The security situation in Abidjan hasn't changed, but the security arrangement with President Gbagbo, the prime minister, and the international community has changed a lot."

Open fighting in the Ivory Coast conflict has been sporadic since the warring sides signed an original peace deal in France in 2003.

At least 10,000 U.N. peacekeepers and French soldiers are in the country. Most patrol a buffer zone separating government soldiers and militias in the south from the rebel-held north.