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Ivory Coast Government,  Rebels to Sign Cease-Fire - 2003-01-13

Rebels based in western Ivory Coast are preparing to sign a cease-fire agreement with the government ahead of Wednesday's scheduled start of peace negotiations in France.

The French-brokered talks in Paris are designed to end a near four month rebellion that has killed hundreds in what was until recently the most stable country in West Africa.

Rebels with two groups based in the west of Ivory Coast, gathered Monday in nearby Togo to sign on to a ceasefire that is already in effect between the government and northern rebels. The agreement will formalize verbal commitments that both groups made earlier, in which they agreed to avoid fighting while the talks in France are under way.

The three rebel groups have been fighting to overthrow the government of Ivory Coast, led by President Laurent Gbagbo. Government officials and representatives of the northern rebel group, the Patriotic Movement of Ivory Coast, were also in Togo for the signing ceremony Monday.

The ceremony was due to get under way in the Togolese capital, Lome, late Monday after some last minute objections by one of the rebel factions.

The Movement for Peace and Justice on Sunday had announced it would not sign the truce, but leaders later changed their minds and decided to travel to Lome to sign.

All sides have agreed to begin talks outside Paris this week following last month's collapse of peace negotiations that had been brokered by West African nations.

Both the government and the insurgents have expressed a desire to end their dispute, which has all but paralyzed the country. Ivory Coast is the world's main producer of cocoa and a major business hub for the region.

Despite the help of foreign mercenaries, the Gbagbo government has not been able to put down the rebellion. Rebels, meanwhile, have been prevented from advancing on the main city, Abidjan, and seizing power due to a peacekeeping force of more than 2,000 French troops deployed along rebel lines.

France, the former colonial power in Ivory Coast, has been eager to return peace to the West African country, where it has large economic interests. Ivory Coast is home to tens of thousands of French nationals.