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French Peacekeepers Begin Deploying in Ivory Coast Rebel Territory - 2003-12-31

France's defense minister says French peacekeeping troops in Ivory Coast have started deploying throughout northern rebel-held areas.

The statement by French Defense Minister Michele Alliot-Marie came as she met with Ivorian officials Wednesday in Abidjan and spent New Year's festivities with French peacekeepers.

French soldiers have been deployed along front lines in the conflict and have helped with security in both the government-run south and rebel-held north. Mrs. Alliot-Marie say they will now deploy throughout the north.

She also applauded the conduct of the 4,000 French troops who have effectively ended fighting in the former French colony since their deployment late last year.

Armed rebels continue to occupy the north because, they say, the peace deal, which includes giving voting rights to many northerners now considered immigrants, has not yet been implemented.

Ivorian President Laurent Gbagbo has called on rebels to disarm so the peace process can move along. On Tuesday, he said he was pushing back a planned visit to the northern rebel-stronghold of Bouake to declare the end of the war. He said he wants to make sure the war is really over before making such a statement. Mr. Gbagbo had earlier said he was planning to go before the end of the year.

Meanwhile, rebel leader Guillaume Soro confirmed Tuesday that rebel political leaders will rejoin a power-sharing government early next year. He also asked for forgiveness from all Ivorians and said suspended administrative services were desperately needed in the north.

Rebels quit the national reconciliation government in September, saying Mr. Gbagbo was refusing to share power. They decided to rejoin after receiving assurances that work will now begin on implementing the peace deal.

This comes as the army and rebels have started pulling back heavy weaponry from front lines and dismantling checkpoints along main arteries, as part of the disarmament process mandated in the peace deal to end the war.

Both sides recruited mercenaries, including Liberian refugees, during the fighting last year that split Ivory Coast in two.