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2 Ivorian Rebel Groups Agree to Join Paris Talks - 2003-01-08

Two rebel factions in western Ivory Coast have agreed to join peace talks that are scheduled to begin in Paris next week. The decision by the two rebel groups is raising hopes of ending the four-month-old rebellion in the West African country.

The decision by the western-based rebel groups to attend peace talks now means that all warring factions will be present at the talks in Paris. Diplomats said the rebels' decision to join the talks could mark a major step toward peace with the government of President Laurent Gbagbo.

Leaders of the two western rebel groups, the Popular Movement of the Far West of Ivory Coast and the Movement for Justice and Peace, agreed to stop hostilities before the negotiations begin. The talks are being mediated by France and are due to start on January 15.

The agreement was reached during a meeting between the rebel leaders and the French ambassador in the western town of Douekoue. The French diplomat traveled to Douekoue, the scene of heavy fighting recently, to invite the factions to attend the peace negotiations.

France, the former colonial power in Ivory Coast, has been eager to end the four-month conflict, fearing it may destabilize the region and threaten the estimated 20,000 French nationals who live in the country.

More than 2,000 French troops are on the ground to enforce the terms of an earlier cease-fire and prevent rebel forces from reaching the main city, Abidjan.

Members of the western rebel factions have attacked the French peacekeepers on several occasions since they emerged in late November. The fiercest clash was on Monday, when rebels and French forces exchanged fire at Douekoue. French officials say about 30 rebels were killed and nine French soldiers were wounded.

The main northern-based rebel group, the Patriotic Movement of Ivory Coast, whose followers launched the insurrection with a failed coup attempt last September, has already agreed to take part in the negotiations with Ivory Coast government officials next week in Paris.