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Congolese President Opens New Phase in Ivory Coast Mediation

The new acting president of the African Union has met with the leaders of Ivory Coast's warring factions, hoping to finally implement a three-year-old peace process. However, there is much to do, if October elections are to be held on schedule.

Congolese President Denis Sassou N'guesso finished up two days of talks with the leading figures in Ivory Coast's more than three-year-old civil war, saying he was optimistic for the future.

Speaking to journalists at the end of his visit in the commercial capital, Abidjan, he said it is true there are problems that need to be worked out. But, he said, he would leave Ivory Coast with the feeling that things are moving in the right direction.

Mr. Sassou N'guesso met Saturday with the four main figures in the conflict, President Laurent Gbagbo, former President Henri Konan Bedie, popular northern opposition leader Alassane Ouattara, and New Forces rebel leader Guillaume Soro.

The meeting was only the second such encounter to take place on Ivorian soil since the beginning of the war, and also included transitional government Prime Minister Charles Konan Banny.

The Congolese president took over the rotating presidency of the African Union in January, when the body decided to pass over Sudan, whose turn it had been to hold the post.

Ivory Coast has already several outside mediators, since rebels seized the northern half of the country in late 2002. And, though all sides in the conflict have signed a succession of peace agreements, none has ever been fully implemented.

Efforts by South African President Thabo Mbeki to pave the way for presidential elections last year failed. And Ivorian President Gbagbo was granted a 12-month extension to his mandate by the United Nations.

Mr. Sassou N'guesso now has until the end of October to help prepare new elections. However, two main obstacles that have plagued previous mediation efforts remain - disarmament of northern rebels and southern militias, and the identification of Ivorian citizens.

On these two points, Mr. Sassou N'guesso said, he sees progress. "All parties have expressed a willingness to start right away with the disarmament and identification processes," he said. The two are intimately linked. This, he said, "should progressively bring us to the reunification of the country."

Around 10,000 U.N. peacekeepers and U.N.-mandated French soldiers are in Ivory Coast. Most patrol a buffer zone separating government forces in the south from northern rebels.