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Key African Leaders Choose to Skip Ivory Coast Summit - 2002-12-18

West African leaders are scheduled to meet in Senegal in an urgent attempt to find a solution to the crisis in Ivory Coast. But several key leaders have decided to stay home rather than attend the meeting. The Ivorian government and the rebels complain that regional leaders are too divided to really help end the crisis.

The hastily arranged meeting in Dakar, Senegal, was supposed to be a heads-of-state summit of the regional group ECOWAS, the Economic Community of West African states. But it appears that most of the regional leaders decided to skip the summit.

Nigeria, Ghana, Liberia, Togo and Mali have sent senior government officials, but not their presidents. Only the leaders of Ivory Coast, Burkina Faso and host nation Senegal were actually confirmed as attending the meeting themselves.

It is especially significant that Togolese President Gnassingbe Eyadema has chosen to stay home, sending his prime minister and defense minister in his place. Mr. Eyadema has been brokering peace talks on behalf of ECOWAS since October.

In a column published Wednesday, the editor-in-chief of the main state-owned newspaper in Ivory Coast accused the West African leaders of wasting time on meetings that produce no concrete results, while Ivorians continue to suffer.

"If the summit in Dakar fails," he wrote, "it will equal a big failure for ECOWAS, which will clearly show its divisions and inability to be a credible partner."

Leaders of the main rebel group, the Popular Movement of Ivory Coast, or MPCI, say they were not invited to the Dakar summit. MPCI Secretary General Guillaume Soro echoed the sentiments of the government-run newspaper regarding disunity within ECOWAS.

"We think it would be good for the heads of state to have the same vision, and not to divert themselves with so many separate initiatives," he said.

Mr. Soro told VOA he is more optimistic about the potential success of the proposed peace talks in Paris, for which no date has been set.

France has said it will send a total of 2,500 French troops to shore up the shaky cease-fire in its former colony. Already, more than 1,000 French soldiers are deployed mainly in the north and west of Ivory Coast. The rebels have accused them of siding with the Ivorian government, a charge the French deny.

"We are asking the French to remain strictly neutral," Mr. Soro said. "We will see if the Ivorian government soldiers can defeat us."

The rebels have vowed to fight on despite the arrival of heavily armed French soldiers, who have been authorized to shoot anyone seen violating the cease-fire.

Since the truce was signed in October, two new rebel groups have emerged in the west, and there have been reports that the conflict has drawn in fighters from neighboring countries, including Liberia and Burkina Faso.