Ivory Coast rebels apologise for walk-out

Ivory Coast’s rebels apologised to Togo’s president on Sunday after walking out of peace talks, a withdrawal that raised fears of new fighting in West Africa’s economic powerhouse.

But the deadlock looked set to continue for at least a few days as rebel leaders prepared to return to Ivory Coast to consult their rank-and-file. Officials at the Togolese presidency, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the rebels told President Gnassingbe Eyadema, Africa’s longest-serving leader, they meant no disrespect by halting the talks in Togo’s capital, Lome. They said they were committed to the peace process.

A seven-week-old rebellion in Ivory Coast has split the nation into rebel-held north and government-held south and killed hundreds.
Regional leaders are eager to avoid all-out war in the former French colony, the world’s largest cocoa producer, one of West Africa’s most crucial ports, and a longtime base of multinational corporations.

Rebels pulled out of the talks on Saturday, accusing Ivory Coast President Laurent Gbagbo of carrying out systematic extrajudicial killings. The withdrawal came after the brother of one of the rebel leaders was found shot dead in Ivory Coast’s commercial hub, Abidjan.

They said they would resume talks only if Gbagbo publicly guaranteed security in government-held territory. Rebel leader Guillaume Soro said on Sunday he planned to return to the rebel stronghold of Bouake in central Ivory Coast on Monday. “We have told President Eyadema we are leaving behind part of the delegation as an assurance that we will not abandon the talks,” he said. Asked if he thought talks would resume in a day or two, he said; “That is not possible but we will be back for the talks when everything is ready.”

He did not elaborate. A member of the government team said they did not plan to leave Lome and were waiting for discussions to resume.

The deadlock has sharpened fears of renewed fighting in Ivory Coast, until a 1999 coup West Africa’s most stable and prosperous nation. Both sides have been beefing up their forces, although a three-week cease-fire has held.

The rebels say they have two fighter jets, and they have reportedly also received new heavy weapons. Western military sources say the government has acquired Soviet-made helicopter gunships and Angolan tanks. The rebels also accuse the government of hiring South African mercenaries.

In a statement issued late on Saturday, Eyadema and West African mediators condemned recent killings in Ivory Coast, and called on Gbagbo to take “adequate security measures.” It urged both sides in the conflict to take steps to prevent extrajudicial killings.

Even before the slaying, the talks were stalled over rebel demands that Gbagbo step down to clear the way for elections in six months, and the government’s insistence that the insurgents lay down their arms.

The rebels decided to withdraw after the body of rebel leader Louis Dacoury-Tabley’s brother was found. Gbagbo’s government has promised an inquiry into the killing.

An opposition party leader, Emile Tehe, was also found dead last week, and there have been unconfirmed reports that several opposition party sympathisers have been kidnapped.

Rebels, including 800 recently dismissed soldiers, launched a coup attempt on September 19. They have since seized the northern half of the country.

A ceasefire was agreed on October 17, and is being monitored by more than 1 000 French troops. A 1 500-strong West African force is due to take over, with the first troops expected by the end of next week.

The rebels say they are fighting to protect the rights of predominantly Muslim northern Ivorians, who complain of discrimination and harassment by the Christian and animist southern tribes that traditionally have dominated the government. - Sapa-AP

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