Côte d'Ivoire

Talks the only hope in Ivory Coast's no-man's land

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By Matthew Tostevin
YAKRO, Ivory Coast, Feb 14 (Reuters) - If Ivory Coast returned to full-blown civil war, the village of Yakro could expect an unenviable place near its centre.

But the possibility is something few here even want to consider as the West African country creeps towards a rebel ultimatum this weekend for President Laurent Gbagbo to respect a French-brokered peace deal or face a possible offensive.

Now strung again with the bright-coloured thread of its expert weavers, Yakro was deserted after a first round of fighting in September last year.

"People fled and now they have come back. They do not want to have to hear about fighting again," said Jean-Marie Kouassi. "We must still believe there is a chance for peace."

Yakro lies in the no-man's land between Gbagbo's loyalist troops and the main rebel faction, the Patriotic Movement of Ivory Coast (MPCI), on the road to their stronghold of Bouake, 350 km (220 miles) north of the main city of Abidjan.

Springing from a failed coup in September, the war quickly cut off the rebel-held and largely Muslim north from the more heavily Christian south, tearing apart a country once known in the troubled region as a haven of peace.

While other Ivorians have grown frustrated by four months of wrangling over terms for peace -- punctuated by bursts of fighting with new rebel factions in the west -- the time has been a blessing for those stuck between the two sides.

Troops from former colonial power France are posted nearby to police the ceasefire.

THANKFUL FOR LULL

"Life is getting back to normal and the rebels do not even come here much any more," said Stephane N'Guessan, a few km (miles) up the road from Yakro towards the rebel outposts.

"Some of them came and took a cow for the feast the other day though and they did not pay."

Men bicycle to their fields in the early morning sunshine as children in neatly-pressed uniforms make their way to school. Markets have many of the goods they had for sale in the days before the war.

But not far over the horizon is the fear that negotiations to end the conflict in the world's top cocoa producer might now be running their course.

Last month's peace deal sparked two weeks of riots and protests in Abidjan at an agreement that would bring the rebels into government. The insurgents have given Gbagbo until midnight on Sunday to implement it fully or else.

With West African countries frantically trying to end a war that has left thousands dead, rebel frontman Guillaume Soro headed from Bouake for Ghana's capital Accra on Friday for talks with a consensus prime minister on government posts.

Although diplomats remain hopeful of a deal and expect no immediate trouble after the ultimatum expires, the rebels have so far ruled out all suggestion of compromise on what they say was agreed in France.

"We're not interested in Accra, we're going to Abidjan," said one rebel, slinging his gun to his shoulder at a checkpoint near Bouake, where a carved wooden chimpanzee and a fetish statue also watched down the road towards Yakro.

Reuters - Thomson Reuters Foundation
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