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Ivory Coast Rebels Sign Cease-Fire - 2002-10-17

The government of Ivory Coast and rebel leaders have signed an agreement to put aside their weapons and negotiate an end to the country's four-week-old rebellion.

Senegal's Foreign Minister Cheikh Tidiane Gadio emerged from the meeting confident that the government and the rebels have taken their first concrete step toward a peaceful resolution of the crisis.

Hundreds of people have been killed and hundreds-of-thousands displaced since the fighting began on September 19.

Mr. Gadio says the agreement calls for both sides to cease hostilities as of Friday morning. The rebels have also agreed to air their future grievances through direct talks between rebels and government representatives.

"We had to go through a lot of hurdles and last-minute problems, but both the government and the rebel forces were eager to get somewhere where they could lay down their weapons and talk to each other," he said.

Foreign Minister Gadio and Senegal's President, Abdoulaye Wade, have been the leaders in the latest efforts by the 15-nation Economic Community of West African States, better known as ECOWAS, to mediate an agreement.

The last ceasefire accord fell apart more than a week ago when Ivory Coast President Laurent Gbagbo insisted he would not sign until the rebels disarmed. Since then, the rebels have held off government attempts to recapture the country's second largest city, Bouake.

In recent days, they have fought pitched battles with loyalist troops for control of Daloa, a key western town in the edge of the cocoa belt.

About half of the country is currently in the hands of the rebels.

Despite the escalation of tension and violence, the Executive Secretary of ECOWAS, Mohammed Chambas, said the West African mediators never gave up hope that an agreement could be reached.

"In this kind of exercise, you have to focus, be persistent, and keep talking to both sides, and that is exactly what we did," he said.

The rebels had suspended ceasefire talks on Monday over allegations that Angola was supplying the government with equipment and possibly troops to help fight the rebels. Mr. Chambas said the report, which Angola denies, was not part of the latest discussions.

ECOWAS officials say monitors will be sent in once the cease-fire goes into effect. On Tuesday, six West African members of ECOWAS also plan to hold a summit to step up the search for peace in Ivory Coast.

The Ivorian crisis began when renegade soldiers mutinied against the government. The rebels say President Gbagbo's government is illegitimate and have demanded, among other things, his immediate resignation and new presidential elections.