BOUAKE, Ivory Coast (Reuters) - As Ivory Coast's new prime minister began putting together a coalition government aimed at bringing peace to the country, rebels said on Tuesday they were battling an offensive by Ivorian troops in the west.
Seydou Diarra, a former diplomat, who held the same post under a military junta in 2000, was sworn in as Ivory Coast's new premier at a summit in the capital on Monday. He left for the main city of Abidjan for consultations on Tuesday.
Under the terms of a French-brokered peace deal, Diarra is charged with assembling all political groups in a reconciliation government designed to bring peace to Ivory Coast after nearly five months of civil war which has left thousands dead.
Diarra's return to Abidjan coincided with the arrival on Tuesday of U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan's special envoy to Ivory Coast, Albert Tevoedjre, who was nominated last week to help carry out the Paris peace plan.
President Laurent Gbagbo has given a lukewarm endorsement to the deal, which rebels say gives them cabinet posts at the defence and interior ministries. They have warned they expect the deal to start being implemented within a week.
Gbagbo's supporters say the deal gives too much to the rebels groups who hold the north of the former French colony.
Anti-French riots broke out in Abidjan as soon as news of rebel cabinet posts leaked out last month, although Gbagbo told his backers in a recent address that he would have the final say on any government nominations.
"It's fairly clear that Gbagbo is back-pedalling as fast as he can and that there's not much left of the peace deal," said one western diplomat. "The key question is whether Gbagbo has ruled out giving the rebels any government jobs at all."
REBELS SAY MORE FIGHTING
Rebels in the west of the world's biggest cocoa grower said they came under attack just north of the town of Toulepleu, 20 kms (13 miles) from the Liberian border, on Monday evening and that fighting continued on Tuesday.
"Gbagbo cannot be trusted. No sooner has he signed (a peace deal) and he attacks. We are just defending our positions," Felix Doh, a commander in one of two rebel groups in the west.
The army's spokesman was not immediately available for comment and the French army in Ivory Coast said it could not independently confirm any fighting in the west on Tuesday.
Ivory Coast's war blew up from a failed coup last September, fracturing the country along ethnic lines. Three rebel factions now hold the northern half of the country and large chunks of the cocoa-rich west.
More than 3,000 French soldiers are in Ivory Coast to protect French citizens and other foreign nationals and to police a shaky ceasefire, camped between tense government soldiers and defiant rebels.
Rebels refused to attend Monday's summit in government territory, 100 km (60 miles) south of their stronghold Bouake.
Guillaume Soro of the main faction, the Patriotic Movement for Ivory Coast (MPCI), said the two posts were "non-negotiable" and the rebels expected seven government positions in all.
"There won't be peace and there won't be territorial integrity as long as the accords are not applied and the reconciliation government is not formed," he said.
- Reuters - Thomson Reuters Foundation
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