ABIDJAN, Feb 3 (Reuters) - Ivory Coast's main rebel faction is considering making concessions on the key defence minister post in a coalition government as a way to break the deadlock over a French-brokered peace deal, rebel sources said.
The sources said the rebels could accept taking the junior defence minister's post in the new government instead of the minister's job -- which the rebels say they were promised under the accord signed near Paris last month.
News that the Defence Ministry had been allotted to the rebel Patriotic Movement of Ivory Coast (MPCI) sparked more than a week of often violent protests by President Laurent Gbagbo's supporters, who say the deal gives too much to the rebels.
Western and regional diplomats said the post of junior defence minister had been proposed to the rebels to calm the protesters. Diplomatic sources in Paris said the rebels appeared prepared to accept it.
"It's feasible. It's something we could accept," a rebel source in the MPCI stronghold of Bouake told Reuters.
Rebels had so far said the deal was non-negotiable, threatening to resume fighting if Gbagbo went back on his word.
Although the Defence Ministry has appeared the main sticking point, many of Gbagbo's supporters reject any rebel participation in government at all. The army has also said it would refuse demobilisation under the accord.
Protests over the deal entered their second week on Monday as thousands of women in paper hats danced and chanted outside the French embassy in the main city Abidjan, accusing the former colonial power of bullying Gbagbo into signing the accord.
Gbagbo has yet to give his view on the accord. His aides say he is expected to speak in the coming days.
"We want Gbagbo, the people chose him," chanted the women decked in orange, white and green, the national colours, as they swayed peacefully along Abidjan's streets -- a marked contrast to last week's attacks by stone-throwing youths.
A top aide to Gbagbo said on Sunday that renegotiating the deal was inevitable, but French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin then called on the president to implement the accord.
France kept up the pressure on Monday, saying the Economic Community of West African States and the head of the African Union backed the deal.
Speaking privately, French diplomats noted the deal to give the rebels the defence and interior ministries had been stuck by Gbagbo and other parties to the talks. They said it was not part of the formal accord and could be changed without altering the overall agreement.
On Sunday, MPCI chief negotiator Guillaume Soro said the rebels' patience was running out.
"Right now, the international community must bring Laurent Gbagbo to book over the implementation of the accord or fighting will resume," he said. Fighting largely halted after the MPCI and two allied factions agreed a ceasefire before the talks.
Tension in Abidjan rose a notch on Sunday when opposition supporters stormed onto the streets after the killing of an activist who was also a popular comedian. One protester was killed as security forces opened fire to disperse the crowd.
The demonstration was the first major opposition protest since the war started. It underscored the deep ethnic division at the root of a conflict which erupted after a failed coup in September, killed hundreds and displacing more than a million.
Like the main opposition and the MPCI rebels, the comedian was from the Muslim north. Most of Gbagbo's support is from the mainly Christian and animist south.
A group of rebel supporters in Abidjan called from hiding for a three-day "dead city" general strike between Tuesday and Thursday to demand the comedian's killers be brought to justice.
Opposition supporters say the murder was the latest in a series by shadowy death squads since the war started.
"France condemns all sorts of human rights abuses and in particular the abduction and killing of people considered as close to the opposition," a French Foreign Ministry spokesman said on Monday, urging authorities to punish those responsible.
France has told its 16,000 citizens in Ivory Coast to leave unless their presence is essential. A 2,500-strong French force is in Ivory Coast to protect foreigners and police the truce.
(additional reporting by Henri-Pierre Andre in Paris)
- Reuters - Thomson Reuters Foundation
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