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

Rebels based in western Ivory Coast have signed a cease-fire agreement with the government before Wednesday's scheduled start of peace negotiations in France.

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

Government officials and rebels with two groups based in western Ivory Coast, gathered in nearby Togo to sign a cease-fire that is already in effect between the government and northern rebels. The agreement formalizes verbal commitments that both groups made earlier 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. Representatives of the northern rebel group, the Patriotic Movement of Ivory Coast, were also in Togo for the signing ceremony.

The rebels pledged not to take over new territory during the talks and while a multi-national West African peacekeeping force is deployed.

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

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.