The president of Ivory Coast says he is ready to stop all hostilities in his three-month-old war against rebel forces. He made the unexpected declaration after meeting with the visiting French foreign minister.
Ivorian President Laurent Gbagbo told reporters he is willing to ground all government helicopters and send the mercenaries he has hired home.
He said he is ready to observe a total cease-fire on all fronts north, central and west. He added the military will immobilize the helicopters because, in his words, in the end, "We only want peace."
The unexpected declaration comes just days after President Gbagbo vowed to keep fighting until Ivory Coast has recovered its territorial integrity. In a nationally televised New Year's Eve speech, he said he would refuse to negotiate with the rebels until they lay down their arms.
But that was before French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin came to town. The two men spent Friday afternoon in talks at Mr. Gbagbo's home in Abidjan.
Mr. de Villepin said he made it clear how grave the situation is. He noted that in recent days, "We have seen an increase in clashes, violations of the cease-fire, and attacks against human rights." In his words, "The situation is very serious, and we must all mobilize."
France has roughly 2,500 troops in it former colony. Their mission is to protect foreigners and enforce a cease-fire between the northern rebels and the government, signed in October. The other two rebel factions, operating in the west, have not signed any cease-fire.
The French foreign minister has made the hastily arranged visit to Ivory Coast after French peacekeepers confirmed that a government helicopter gunship had broken the cease-fire by attacking a rebel-held village in central Ivory Coast on Wednesday. On the same day, the western rebels claimed to have taken a village near the Liberian border, and there were widespread reports that Liberian fighters had gone on a killing and looting rampage in the town.
The French foreign minister plans to visit the rebel stronghold of Bouake on Saturday for talks with rebel leaders. He is urging all sides to start a new round of peace talks in Paris in about two weeks.