Côte d'Ivoire

First African peacekeepers heading to Ivory Coast

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Nairobi (dpa) - The first batch of West African soldiers assigned to try to keep peace in conflict-riven Ivory Coast left their countries Tuesday, on the eve of crucial French-brokered peace talks.
A French troop ship set sail from Dakar with 179 soldiers from Senegal, which will lead a 1,200-strong peacekeeping force pledged by five West African nations in December during an emergency summit on Ivory Coast.

Another 250 soldiers from Niger were given a send-off Tuesday at a military base in the capital Niamey before flying to Ivory Coast.

An oft-broken ceasefire between government and rebels in Ivory Coast is currently being patrolled by some 2,000 French troops, dispatched ostensibly to protect the 20,000 French citizens in the former colony.

France is on Wednesday hosting a round of peace talks between the government of President Laurent Gbagbo and three rebel groups who control the west and north of the country.

Ghana, Mali and Togo have also promised to send troops to the West African force, which was to be deployed in Ivory Coast in October but was delayed by wangling over its funding, composition and command structure.

Dissident soldiers in Ivory Coast launched a coup attempt against Gbagbo in September.

The rebel Patriotic Movement of Ivory Coast took control of the mostly Moslem northern half of the country then signed a ceasefire in October.

Two other groups, the Popular Ivorian Movement for the Greater West and the Movement for Peace and Justice, emerged in November and soon took control of western Ivory Coast. They signed a ceasefire with the government on Monday.

All the rebels say they want Gbagbo's resignation, fresh elections and an end to the political dominance of the mainly Christian south. Gbagbo has refused to step down and his government has demanded the rebels disarm before it will negotiate a political deal.

Ivory Coast is the world's largest cocoa producer and was long the most stable country in West Africa, but increased immigration from poorer neighbouring countries and a north-south political and ethnic divide have brought increased unrest over the past three years.

dpa mc sc

Copyright (c) 2003 dpa Deutsche Presse-Agentur GmbH
Received by NewsEdge Insight: 01/14/2003 11:06:07

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