MAN, Ivory Coast, Feb 6 (Reuters) - Defiant Ivory Coast rebels met in the western town of Man on Thursday to plot their next move as West African mediators struggled to end a war which a top official said has already cost nearly 5,000 lives.
Three rebel groups debated firing off an ultimatum to President Laurent Gbagbo to implement a French-brokered peace deal which has been denounced in government circles and triggered violent anti-French riots in the main city Abidjan.
"We want total victory and, for us, if Gbabgo doesn't respect the accord, total victory means going to Abidjan and taking power," Guillaume Soro, spokesman for the main MPCI rebel group, told several thousand locals and rebels in a football stadium.
Ivory Coast's war blew up from a failed coup last September. The north of the world's biggest cocoa grower is now in rebel hands and over one million people have been driven from their homes in the former French colony.
The rebels have already threatened to go on the offensive unless Gbagbo stands by the Paris deal which would give them two key posts at the defence and interior ministries.
While the rebels mulled their next move, Gbagbo was preparing a long-awaited address to the nation for Friday.
Ivory Coast has been on edge waiting for Gbagbo to make his position clear on a deal his supporters say gives too much to rebels. Since returning from Paris, he has increasingly backed away from the controversial accord.
His adviser Toussaint Alain said the president would address the nation on state television at 8 p.m. (2000 GMT) on Friday, nearly two weeks after the deal was agreed.
The MPCI (Patriotic Movement for Ivory Coast) rebels, the Movement for Justice and Peace (MJP) and the Ivorian Popular Movement for the Far West (MPIGO) were due to hold a news conference in Man at 1700 GMT on Thursday.
With the French peace deal hanging in the balance, regional diplomats have stepped up pressure on rebels and the government, urging them to avoid more bloodshed.
Pascal Affi N'Guessan, outgoing prime minister and head of Gbagbo's own Ivorian Popular Front (FPI) party, said in an interview published on Thursday that nearly 5,000 people had died in the conflict, including dozens of Ivorian soldiers.
Gbagbo jetted to Ghana on Wednesday for a two-hour meeting with counterpart John Kufuor, who is chairman of regional bloc the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS).
ECOWAS' top official Mohamed ibn Chambas told Reuters on Thursday a summit of regional heads of state, rebels and the Ivorian government was being planned for early next week, either in Ivory Coast's capital Yamoussoukro or Ghana's capital Accra.
ECOWAS hosted deadlocked peace talks last year in Togo before France whisked negotiating teams to Paris in January to hammer out the deal which has caused such strife in Abidjan.
The increased shuttle diplomacy comes as France raced more troops to protect foreign nationals in Abidjan and the United States flew in "a small number" of military advisers.
Some 300 French troops were due in the commercial capital on Friday, according to a French military source, bringing the number of French troops on the ground to 3,000.
Meanwhile, the United Nations upped its security rating for Ivory Coast from Thursday to "phase four", according to a U.N. source. This means U.N. agencies will cut back on development work while keeping emergency services in place.
A U.N. source in Abidjan said the number of U.N. international staff in Ivory Coast would quickly drop to 80 from 110 and might then be whittled down further. (Additional reporting by Clar Ni Chonghaile in Abidjan, Anne Boher and Kwaku Sakyi-Addo in Accra)
- Reuters - Thomson Reuters Foundation
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