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Ivory Coast Peace Talks Begin in Paris - 2003-01-15

The heads of Ivory Coast's political parties and rebel factions are meeting in Paris to try to find a way to end the country's four-month-old civil war. The conference has been organized by the French government, which is warning of a catastrophe if the sides cannot settle their differences. The major difference is over the Ivorian President, Laurent Gbagbo.

Three rebel movements that control more than half of the Ivory Coast are demanding that President Gbagbo either resign or call new elections. The president, and the political parties that make up the government, said there is no provision for calling elections ahead of schedule, and he is not stepping down.

Prime Minister Pascal Affi N'Guessan told French television Tuesday that Mr. Gbagbo's victory two years ago gives him a mandate until 2005 and the rebels will have to wait.

The French are believed to be pressing behind the scenes for the creation of a coalition government that includes the political opposition. The leading opposition figure, Alassane Ouattara is taking part in the talks, as are representatives of the three rebel groups and political parties in the government.

Many of the rebels are said to support Mr. Ouattara. Their uprising began as a mutiny and became a general protest against the government, which is mostly Christian and mainly composed of people from the south of the country. The rebels, who hold the north and the west, are mainly Muslim.

Hundreds of people have been killed and thousands displaced in the fighting in what was one of West Africa's most stable countries.

Over the next nine days the Ivorian factions will try to resolve their dispute in an isolated rugby compound 30 kilometers outside of Paris. If they succeed, Mr. Gbagbo will sign an agreement at a ceremony in Paris to be attended by other African heads of state.