A train linking southern Ivory Coast to northern rebel-held zones has made its first round trip since the start of the civil war eight months ago. It was a test run, and the train had no passengers or cargo on board. But the trip could be an important step toward a return to normal life in a country that is important to the whole region's economy.

The train returned to Abidjan Thursday to the applause of members of the government of national reconciliation.

A dozen French and African peacekeepers, along with Ivorian soldiers and rebels troops, ensured the train's security as it traveled to the border with Burkina Faso and then back to Abidjan.

Industry Minister Ahoussou Jeannot thanked all who made the trip possible.

Groups close to President Laurent Gbagbo have called the train a train of death. They say it could carry weapons for rebels from the north into the government-held south. But Mr. Jeannot rejected such charges.

The head of the company operating the train, Abdel Aziz Thiam, says the trip was necessary to make sure everything is in working order.

Mr. Thiam says he hopes to begin regular operations within Ivory Coast by the end of the month if the new government now getting organized gives its approval.

The conductor of the test train, Yoboue Angoa, says both train workers and northerners are desperate for the service to resume.

Mr. Angoa says that as the train passed through the countryside, the faces of residents along the train tracks lit up with joy. He says northerners depend on the train not only for travel, but more importantly for commerce.

The train normally operates all the way to Ouagadougou, the capital of Burkina Faso. It was the main gateway to Ivory Coast and its port cities for land-locked Burkina Faso, as well as Mali and Niger. Ivorian exporters who sell their goods to those countries also hope for a quick resumption of regular service.