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Rebels, Gov't Doubtful About Ivory Coast Cease-fire - 2003-01-05

Rebels and government leaders in Ivory Coast said they are skeptical about whether the other side will observe a cease-fire as promised. Two of the main rebel groups have promised to attend a special round of peace talks in Paris.

The latest group to sign on for the Paris peace talks is the western rebel faction The Ivorian Popular Movement of the Far West. Its leader, Felix Doh, said he is prepared to go to the urgent summit scheduled to begin January 15.

The Paris peace talks were proposed by French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin when he visited Ivory Coast Friday and Saturday. He did not meet directly with western-rebel representatives, but talked with the other main rebel group, which controls most of the northern and central parts of the country.

Mr. de Villepin also met with government leaders. He urged all sides to observe an immediate cease-fire and to open negotiations on a way to end the three-month-old crisis.

After meeting with the French foreign minister, Ivorian President Laurent Gbagbo has pledged to send his foreign mercenaries home, ground the government attack helicopters, and freeze his troops' positions. The northern rebel group, the Patriotic Movement of Ivory Coast, has also promised to stop fighting until the Paris talks.

But the government and the rebels have expressed skepticism about whether the other side will really honor their new commitments to freeze hostilities.

The government and the northern rebels signed a cease-fire in October, but fighting resumed within weeks. They made little progress at the last round of peace talks in Togo.

The two western rebel factions never signed the cease-fire and have not previously negotiated with the government.

France has played an increasingly active role in trying to end the war in its former colony, including sending 2,500 peacekeepers to enforce the existing cease-fire.

The French foreign minister rushed to Ivory Coast for talks with both sides after an upsurge in fighting Wednesday.

France has condemned a government helicopter attack on a rebel-held village, saying it killed 12 civilians and represented a dangerous breach of the existing cease-fire.

On the same day, the western rebels opened a new front when they took control of a town near the Liberian border. Residents fleeing the area said Liberian fighters rampaged through town, raping and killing villagers.