Northern-based rebels in Ivory Coast are rejoining a power-sharing government to discuss the country's stalled peace agreement. Part of the goal is to prevent the Ivorian economy from colapsing.
A series of government meetings involving political rebel leaders began in the commercial capital, Abidjan, on Tuesday.
The rebels ended a four-month boycott after being given assurances that reconciliation Prime Minister Seydou Diarra will be given more powers and a French-brokered peace accord will be fully implemented.
Rebel spokesman Sidiki Konate says 2004 could be a momentous year for Ivory Coast. Mr. Konate says Ivorian politicians have the duty to prepare democratic elections scheduled for 2005 and save the peace accord.
The agreement requires the government to give citizenship, land and voting rights to many northerners now considered immigrants.
In a speech marking the New Year last week, President Laurent Gbagbo said such key changes should be submitted to a referendum once rebels disarm. But he said it was time to in his words turn the page of war.
The rebels have refused to accept disarmament as a precondition for moving forward with the peace accord.
Meetings scheduled to start on Wednesday in the capital Yamoussoukro will bring together rebel military leaders and army commanders to discuss disarmament, demobilization and reintegration of rebel fighters.
The developments come as French peacekeeping troops have started deploying throughout the rebel-held north for the first time, all the way up to the border with Burkina Faso. French and West African peacekeepers have so far been deployed mainly in the government-run south and along front lines.
Meanwhile, Ivorian officials said this week they expect economic growth of two percent in 2004, following two years of contraction.
The civil war, which has divided the world's leading cocoa producing country since September, 2002 has caused growing unemployment and slowed down industrial and agricultural production.