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Rebels to Discuss French Military Role in Ivory Coast - 2002-12-22

The three rebel factions in Ivory Coast are preparing to meet Monday to discuss the increased involvement of French troops in blocking their attempt to overthrow the Ivorian government. Rebel fighters skirmished with French legionnaires in the west of the country in recent days. The head of the French army has visited his troops in Ivory Coast to evaluate the situation on the ground.

The visiting head of the French army, General Henri Bentegeat, has met with Ivorian President Laurent Gbagbo and the head of the Ivory Coast military.

General Bentegeat said the French troops have a three-part mission, protecting French nationals, enforcing the cease-fire signed in October, and "participating in the stabilization of the country."

"Our mission is clearly a mission of peace, the facilitation of a political accord. Everyone knows," he said. "There is no military solution."

French troops in western Ivory Coast Saturday clashed with rebel forces near the city of Duekoue. The rebels were advancing south from the city of Man, which they recently re-took from government forces. The French have vowed to keep the rebels from crossing the strategic Sassandra River.

The general said that if his troops had not stopped the rebel advance, the security of the entire western region would have been compromised, all the way from the capital, Yamoussoukro, to the port city of San Pedro.

France has deployed roughly 1,500 troops to its former colony, and plans to expand the force to 2,500 in the coming weeks. The heavily armed, battle-hardened soldiers are supported by helicopters and light armored vehicles. General Bentegeat would not say how long France plans to keep its troops in Ivory Coast.

"The French army has 15,000 soldiers in operations around the world," he said, "we have the luxury of being able to afford having 1,500 men in Ivory Coast for several years, if necessary. But that is not the goal. The goal is to find a political solution to the conflict through ECOWAS."

General Bentegeat says his troops are prepared to equip, train and support the West African peacekeepers that are due to arrive in Ivory Coast by the end of the year.

After the French halted the rebel advance near Duekoue on Saturday, rebel leaders appear very concerned that the French presence will keep them from reaching their stated goal, which is taking over the commercial capital, Abidjan, and overthrowing the Ivorian government.

Leaders of the three different rebel movements meet Monday in the northern city of Bouake to discuss the French involvement.

Bouake is a stronghold of the first rebel group to emerge, the Patriotic Movement of Ivory Coast, or MPCI. The MPCI holds almost all of northern Ivory Coast. It is the only faction to have engaged in active negotiations with the government, and they signed a cease-fire in October.

Another group, the Popular Movement of the Far West, or MPIGO, is the one that has recently skirmished with the French, and has taken control of several key cities in the West.

The third faction, the Movement for Justice and Peace, is also active in the west.

The three rebel groups have not previously been known to coordinate their efforts, although they share similar goals. They have called for the resignation of President Gbagbo and new elections.