Mbeki arrives in Côte d'Ivoire on peace bid

South African President Thabo Mbeki arrived in Côte d’Ivoire on Tuesday for talks with President Laurent Gbagbo, the latest bid to resolve the long-standing conflict in the war-divided West African nation.

Mbeki, the African Union’s mediator in the Côte d’Ivoire peace process, is expected to meet with rebel leader Guillaume Soro and Prime Minister Seydou Diarra, as well as Gbagbo.

AU leaders, who held a summit on Monday in Libreville, Gabon, urged the United Nations to increase its presence in Côte d’Ivoire, state radio said.

The Libreville summit also encouraged Côte d’Ivoire to hold a referendum on a controversial article in the country’s Constitution that bars Gbagbo’s main rival, Alassane Ouattara, from becoming a candidate in the October 2005 elections, the radio said.

The article stipulates that any presidential candidate’s parents must both be Ivorian-born. Ouattara insists his are, but has had difficulty proving it.

The Libreville summit, held under the auspices of the AU’s Peace and Security Council, said holding a referendum on the issue could help ease tensions in the country, which has been split between a rebel-held north and loyalist south since a September 2002 coup attempt propelled it into civil war.

Late on Monday, AU leaders also called for an extension of a deadline for UN sanctions that would ban travel and freeze assets of warring parties who fail to implement the timetable for peace, the radio said.

Violence flared again in Côte d’Ivoire in early November, when Gbagbo launched surprise bombing attacks on the rebel-held north for three days, citing insurgents’ failure to disarm. One air strike killed nine French peacekeepers and an American aid worker.

French troops retaliated by destroying the country’s tiny air force, sparking anti-foreigner riots by loyalist youths in the south and brief battles between French and Côte d’Ivoire forces.

France acknowledged last month that its troops killed about 20 people, including civilians, but insisted its soldiers had only acted in self-defence.

Other divisive points between rebels and Gbagbo loyalists include the timing of disarmament, security reforms and restarting a power-sharing government that rebels have boycotted.—Sapa-AP

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