PARIS, Jan 15 (Reuters) - Ivory Coast political leaders and rebel chiefs began talks near Paris on Wednesday to end a war that risks plunging West Africa into turmoil, with a peace call by ex-colonial power France ringing in their ears.
Opening nine days of closed-door talks, Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin told delegates only they could end four months of bloodshed that has killed hundreds in the world's top cocoa producer.
"All the Ivorian forces are joined together here and it is your responsibility together to find solutions to the crisis that is hitting your country so hard," Villepin said.
"It is much harder to build peace than to fight a war," he added. "History is waiting, the Ivory Coast is waiting, and you are bound by history, your people are watching you and they are expectant of you."
President Laurent Gbagbo, himself not due to attend the negotiations at a country estate 30 km (20 miles) south of Paris, has voiced confidence the talks will result in him regaining authority of rebel-held areas.
But rebels stepped up calls for Gbagbo to step down, saying his election in 2000 was unfair and insisting early polls were the only way to end the war.
"We are demanding early presidential and legislative elections in Ivory Coast," Guillaume Soro, chief negotiator of the largest rebel group, the northern-based Patriotic Movement of Ivory Coast (MPCI), said after the opening ceremony.
"A government of national unity is not the order of the day at the moment," he told reporters of a mooted deal under which Gbagbo would agree to bring more opponents into his government.
REBELS WILL NOT DISARM
Exiled opposition leader Alassane Ouattara, whose party draws its support from the mainly Muslim north, called for a transition government until early elections could be arranged, and urged all peace options to be explored.
"You can't go into talks saying things are not negotiable. We are trying to see what is in the best interests of Ivory Coast and the whole sub-region," he said.
The war in what was once seen as a haven of stability in a troubled region began with a failed coup on September 19. It prompted France to send 2,500 troops to protect some 20,000 expatriates and try to halt the feared descent into chaos.
Hopes the talks could produce an accord ready for a January 25 summit of African leaders in Paris grew when two western rebel factions signed a truce with the government on Monday, joining the MPCI which had agreed a ceasefire in October.
But while Gbagbo has pledged an amnesty for the rebels and acknowledged there would have to be changes in the government following any settlement, many disputes and simmering grievances block any full accord.
Rebels have refused to comply with the government's key demand for insurgents to disarm, while Gbagbo has rejected rebel demands to resign and insisted the country's constitution prevents him from calling early legislative elections.
After the opening ceremony in Paris, the delegates drove off for their first day of talks at France's National Rugby Centre on a secluded, wooded estate by Linas-Marcoussis, just south of the capital.
France's troop presence in Ivory Coast is its largest in Africa for nearly two decades, but President Jacques Chirac is anxious to avoid accusations it is returning to its old controversial role of "Africa's gendarme".
- Reuters - Thomson Reuters Foundation
- For more humanitarian news and analysis, please visit https://www.trust.org/alertnet