30 October 2002

Cote d'Ivoire: Two Sides Wide Apart as Ivory Coast Peace Talks Begin

Abidjan — The Cote d’Ivoire rebel delegation arrived first in the Togolese capital Lome, Sunday, and settled into one of the upper floors of the city’s once classiest hotel. President Laurent Gbagbo’s representatives showed up on Monday night and were checked into the same hotel, on a different floor, also on the upper levels.

The rival Ivorian adversaries will have to share lifts, restaurants and swimming pool - and the faded glory of the 2 Fevrier Hotel - but that may be as close as they get, if the early - inauspicious - signs are an indicator of the distance between the two sides, even before they start talking.

Gbagbo’s marching orders, as he dispatched his delegates to Togo, were a repetition of his mantra since dissident soldiers began their mutiny almost six weeks ago. "We are ready to negotiate as soon as the assailants put down their arms. If that is done, we are ready to discuss anything," said Gbagbo on state television Monday night, adding that there would be no further discussion of the insurgents’ grievances until they disarmed.

This is fighting talk from the Ivorian leader, who has come under increasing pressure from his peers in the region to find a negotiated settlement to the rebellion and to stop it spreading across Cote d’Ivoire’s borders and destabilizing the whole of West Africa.

But the Patriotic Movement of Cote d’Ivoire (MPCI) rebels are sounding equally uncompromising as they prepare to meet government officials for the first scheduled face-to-face talks, Wednesday, since they tried and failed to topple Gbagbo in an attempted coup on September 19. Their main demand has been that the Ivorian president must step down.

The MPCI’s bilingual website again called, Tuesday, for fresh elections in Cote d’Ivoire, this time within six months of their surrendering their weapons.

"If Ecowas, (Economic Community of West African States), France, the United States and the European Union give us the firm guarantee that elections will be organized in the next six months, with the participation of all candidates and of all Ivorians, we will lay down our arms," said a memorandum on the Internet site of the rebels’ political wing. The dissidents say Gbagbo is not a legitimately elected leader of Cote d'Ivoire and that he has practised discrimination against sections of Ivorian society.

West African mediators, and Togolese President Gnassingbe Eyadema - named last week as the coordinator of the high-level Ecowas contact group set up to broker peace in Cote d’Ivoire - have a monumental task ahead of them trying to find common ground between the adversaries.

On the eve of the peace talks, the rebels accused the Ivorian authorities, on Tuesday night, of using a Russian-manufactured helicopter to fly over several zones in the country. They also claimed the government had "executed" - in the town of Tiebissou, south of their central stronghold, Bouake - two army officers they said were 'sympathizers’ of the rebel cause. Civilian MPCI spokesman, Guillaume Soro, told journalists in Lome: "None of this helps matters, nor does it show a spirit of reconciliation."

It is in this climate of mutual suspicion, animosity and recrimination that the Cote d’Ivoire government and rebels are to try to break the impasse of the past two weeks, since Ecowas brokered a ceasefire, signed by the insurgents, accepted by Gbagbo and currently overseen by French troops.

Ecowas agreed at the weekend to send in its own regional ceasefire monitoring force within the next two weeks, probably commanded by Senegal.

Although the October 17 truce is holding, it is a fragile peace in Cote d’Ivoire, a country that has become volatile and where government-supporters at least have become unpredictable and hostile to all perceived 'non-patriots’ and 'traitors,’ including the rebels and their supporters.

But West African leaders are desperate to see an end to the Ivorian crisis, in which hundreds have been killed, tens of thousands displaced and the country has been divided in two.

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