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Ivory Coast Peace Talks Set to Begin Wednesday - 2002-10-28

Ivory Coast government officials and rebels are preparing for their first round of peace talks Wednesday.

A delegation of rebel leaders is already in the Togolese capital, Lome, for the first face-to-face meeting with Ivory Coast government officials. The rebel delegation is composed of six members, including Guillaume Soro, the insurgent group's executive secretary.

West African mediators say a government delegation is to travel Tuesday to Lome.

Analysts expect the first set of negotiations to be difficult. The government wants the rebels to disarm immediately. The insurgents say an agreement must include President Laurent Gbagbo's resignation.

The rebels also demand new elections in which former Prime Minister Alassane Ouattara is allowed to participate. He was barred from running in the last elections in 2000. Mr. Ouattara, draws most of his support from the Dioula-speaking people of the north, who have long accused people in southern and western Ivory Coast of discriminating against them. Most of the rebels are northerners.

Rebels have been in control of a large segment of the north and center of Ivory Coast since they launched their first attacks on September 19.

Wednesday's negotiations in Togo are part of a peace effort launched by mediators of the regional grouping, the Economic Community of West African States, with the support of western nations including the United States and France.

West African heads of state and government ministers met in Abidjan recently and agreed to deploy a regional force to monitor the cease-fire, that has largely held since it went into effect more than a week ago. Mediators say the force of about 2,000 West African soldiers will be deployed within two weeks and will replace the hundreds of French troops who are monitoring the cease-fire.

Prospects of a West African deployment is causing unease among many Ivorians, who believe the conflict should be resolved internally.

An Abidjan merchant, who identifies herself only as Ms. Stone, says what she knows about past West African missions in Sierra Leone and Liberia makes her fearful.

Ms. Stone says many people know that when West African troops come, they will come only to divide up the country's assets. She says all she has heard about West African peacekeepers is that they are "a bunch of looters and thieves, who come to do more harm than good."

Past missions have involved a majority of Nigerian troops, who have been accused by international human rights groups of committing widespread rights violations and looting.

Nigeria is among the nations volunteering to send troops to Ivory Coast, but mediators say the largest contingent would likely be from Senegal.

Tension has been rising between Ivory Coast and neighboring Burkina Faso, which Ivorian state media have accused of fomenting the rebellion. Ivory Coast government officials have accused Burkina Faso of massing troops along their common border. The claim was not independently verified.