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 Friday, 3 January, 2003, 13:43 GMT
Fresh peace effort for Ivory Coast
French troops at a checkpoint
French troops are monitoring a shaky truce
The French foreign minister has arrived in Ivory Coast in a bid to end the conflict that has split the country since September.

In a hastily arranged visit, Dominique de Villepin is likely to press the rebel factions and the government to go to Paris for new peace talks.

Dominique de Villepin
Nothing but dialogue will work

Dominique de Villepin
French Foreign Minister
His visit comes as the main rebel group, the Ivory Coast Patriotic Movement (MPCI), threatens to end a ceasefire because of a government raid on a rebel-held area that killed at least 12 civilians on Tuesday.

Former colonial power France, which enforces the fragile truce between the MPCI and the government, has strongly condemned the bombing.

Meanwhile, an advance party of 49 peacekeepers from four West African nations has arrived in Abidjan, according to the French news agency, AFP.

The West African force was supposed to have been deployed by 31 December but Senegalese President Abdoulaye Wade told the BBC that the rest of the Senegalese peacekeepers would only be deployed once the two sides had reached a political agreement.

Senegal is supposed to provide the bulk of the 1,200 strong West African peace force, including the commander.

Rebel demands

The BBC's Paul Welsh in Ivory Coast says it is only the presence of French troops that is stopping the country descending into all-out war.

But he says that Mr de Villepin will need all his diplomatic skills if he is to achieve more than nice smiles and handshakes.

The MPCI is threatening to attack government forces if they are not punished for Tuesday's raid by government helicopter gunships.

The aircraft attacked the village of Menakro, about 50 kilometres (30 miles) north of the ceasefire line agreed in October.

Mr de Villepin on Thursday said "nothing but dialogue" would work, and that Paris wanted the international community to help to stop a dangerous spiral of conflict.

"France considers this violation of the October 17, 2002 ceasefire unacceptable and intends to demand an explanation from the Ivorian authorities," his spokesman said.

Open in new window : Ivory Coast
Click here for pictures of the conflict

"Everyone must respect the ceasefire," he added.

The Ivorian army says that the attack was retaliation for a rebel assault and only fighters were killed, not civilians.

The MPCI has held the mainly-Muslim northern half of Ivory Coast ever since the rebellion broke out in September, and is based in the central city of Bouake.

The rebels are trying to overthrow President Laurent Gbagbo.

Expensive chocolate

In the past month, a new front has been opened by other rebel groups near the Liberian border in the west of the country.

They western rebels have been saying they are heading to the strategic port of San Pedro and then on to the main city Abidjan.

MPCI rebel
The rebels want to overthrow President Gbagbo

That advance had been halted by French soldiers near the town on Duekoue.

But earlier this week, the rebels attacked the village of Neka - 200km (120 miles) south of previous fighting in the west of the country.

The Ivorian Government has blamed Liberian mercenaries for the attack, saying they were bent on looting. Liberia has denied any involvement.

Ivory Coast, the world's largest cocoa producer, had been seen as an island of peace and stability in the region.

Cocoa prices rose 5% on Thursday on news of the rebel advance towards San Pedro, leading confectionary manufacturers to warn of an increase in the price of chocolate.

Peace talks organised by the Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas) are stalled.

  The BBC's Paul Welsh
"The French foreign minister will try to ease tensions"

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02 Jan 03 | Africa
01 Jan 03 | Africa
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