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Ivory Coast Rebel Groups Head to Paris for Peace Talks - 2003-01-14

Hopes for peace rose in Ivory Coast as leaders of three rebel factions left their strongholds and headed for Paris to begin a new round of peace negotiations.

The rebel leaders left Ivory Coast for France aboard French military aircraft. Negotiations are due to begin Wednesday at a chateau outside Paris.

The French-mediated talks will bring together the heads of the three rebel factions that have been battling to oust Ivory Coast President Laurent Gbagbo. Also taking part in the negotiations will be representatives of the major opposition parties, and President Gbagbo.

Leaders of the two factions based in the west of the country, the Movement for Peace and Justice, and the Ivorian Popular Movement of the Far West, signed a cease-fire agreement with the government Monday. Members of the main northern-based Patriotic Movement of Ivory Coast had signed a similar accord in October.

Rebel leaders said they were optimistic about the negotiations, but they said they would stick to their main demand: the resignation of Mr. Gbagbo.

In remarks broadcast Monday, President Gbagbo said he will not step down, nor will he accept the holding of early elections. But he took a conciliatory tone, renewing an earlier offer of amnesty for the rebels.

Western diplomats say French officials will likely not press Mr. Gbagbo to end his term before the next elections in 2005. But diplomats said the French are encouraging him to accept a coalition government that would include members of the main opposition parties.

The conflict in Ivory Coast began with a failed coup attempt last September. It has killed hundreds, displaced thousands, and sparked ethnic tensions in what was, until recently, considered the most prosperous and stable country in West Africa.