Côte d'Ivoire

Ivory Coast peace bid holds despite attack report

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By Mark John

PARIS, Jan 16 (Reuters) - Ivory Coast political leaders and rebel chiefs pressed on with talks near Paris on Thursday to end a four-month war as President Laurent Gbagbo's government accused rebels of breaking a truce with a fresh attack.

Ivory Coast's Defence Minister Kadet Bertin said rebels attacked loyalist positions at the western town of Blolequin and breached the terms of a truce agreed for a peace conference hosted by ex-colonial power France.

"Really this is a violation. The rebels attacked us at our positions. It is not a small incident," Kadet told Reuters.

A senior military source said the attack had involved rocket launchers and mortars but added there had been no casualties and that the rebels had since been pushed back.

In France, participants of the peace talks said discussions continued unaffected and a French army spokesman played down the extent of incident, saying an initial inspection of the area by its troops did not suggest any major military action.

"It seems it is scuffles rather than contact of any major proportions," Colonel Christian Baptiste told Reuters.

Reports of the new unrest in the world's top cocoa producer nonetheless sent cocoa futures soaring in London and New York as fears it could endanger the peace talks prompted buying.

Rebel groups were not available to confirm the fighting, which would be the first since rebel groups in western Ivory Coast signed a truce on Monday ahead of the peace talks to end fighting that began with a failed coup on September 19.

The war in what was once seen as a West African haven of stability has left hundreds dead, displaced up to one million and divided the country along ethnic lines.

TALKS IN "CORDIAL ATMOSPHERE"

Despite accusations of fresh violence, participants said the closed-door negotiations between Ivorian political leaders and rebel factions continued as usual at France's National Rugby Centre on a country estate 30 km (20 miles) south of Paris.

On the second day of talks, delegates debated citizenship clauses that have been used to disqualify politicians and the status of foreigners in a country where one quarter of its 16 million population are immigrants and ethnic tensions are rife.

"The talks went ahead in a cordial atmosphere," said a member of the Democratic Party (PDCI) delegation headed by former President Henri Konan Bedie after discussions ended in mid-evening.

The delegate said talks would restart on Friday with a debate on possible compromises over the nationality issue to be set out in a paper by the French ex-minister chairing the talks, Pierre Mazeaud.

France wants the talks to produce an accord in time for a January 25-26 summit of African leaders.

Ten delegations representing Gbagbo's ruling party, opposition parties and rebel groups challenging his election in 2000 launched the nine-day talks on Wednesday.

PRESIDENT CONFIDENT

Gbagbo, himself not due to attend the negotiations at the estate 30 km (20 miles) south of Paris, has voiced confidence the talks would let him regain authority of rebel-held areas.

But rebels have insisted Gbagbo must step down, saying his election in 2000 was unfair and insisting early polls were the only way to end the war.

Exiled opposition leader Alassane Ouattara, whose party draws its support from the mainly Muslim north, has called for a transitional government until early elections could be arranged, and urged all peace options to be explored.

With additional reporting by Matthew Tostevin in Abidjan

Reuters - Thomson Reuters Foundation
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