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Last Updated:  Friday, 21 February, 2003, 21:50 GMT
Ivorian rebels 'back down'
Guillaume Soro (L) and Sidiki Konate arrive in Paris
France is hosting a new round of talks
Senegalese President Abdoulaye Wade has announced what appears to be a major concession by rebels in Ivory Coast.

He said the rebels appeared ready to forego the defence and interior portfolios in the proposed power-sharing government in return for unspecified, equally "prestigious" posts.

The issue of the cabinet posts has proven a major stumbling-block since the outlines of a power-sharing scheme were agreed at talks in France in January to end the country's smouldering civil war.

Instead of the ministries of security and defence allocated to the rebels, they would be given two other ministries just as prestigious
Abdoulaye Wade
Senegalese President
One of the rebels' top leaders said himself on Friday he was hopeful of reaching a final deal with the government at new talks in Paris this weekend.

"We put forward two ideas which seem to be of interest - that is to say, instead of the ministries of security and defence allocated to the rebels, they would be given two other ministries just as prestigious, and it seems that they have accepted this," President Wade said.

He was speaking in the French capital where African leaders have been attending the Franco-African summit.

Mr Wade added that he had been sceptical of progress only recently but had noted that "an evolution of public opinion on the ground".

Challenge to Gbagbo

Forces loyal to President Laurent Gbagbo have threatened to reignite the war if the defence and interior posts go to the rebels who largely control the north and west of the country.

The Ivorian army softened its hostility to the peace deal earlier in the week, saying it did not object to rebels joining the government, as long as they did not control those two ministries.
Protesters confront police in Abidjan after death of a mullah this week
Hundreds killed
More than a million displaced
3,000 French peacekeepers
Nation divided in two
Power sharing deal still to work

Guillaume Soro, the rebels' chief negotiator, said on arrival in Paris that they would be flexible on the issue of government jobs but he called on President Gbagbo to publicly restate his commitment to the deal.

"We are not fighting for ministerial positions - we are fighting to defend democracy," he added.

Mr Soro is due to have talks with President Gbagbo's new Prime Minister, Seydou Diarra, who represented Ivory Coast at the Paris summit which ended on Friday.

The Senegalese leader, for his part predicted that the talks would be a success.

"I think that Diarra will be able to leave Paris with a government," he told Reuters news agency.

In another development, a United Nations fact-finding team is due to begin a 12-day mission to Ivory Coast on Saturday to assess how the UN may contribute to the peace process.

New fighting

Tension has been high in Ivory Coast this week with the army reporting heavy fighting around the central, sugar-growing town of Zuenoula.

It said it had killed 22 rebels in a counter-attack after attacks on villagers left an undisclosed number of civilians dead.

The rebels denied involvement in the violence and accused the army of trying to "frame" them.

Ethnic and religious tension continues in the main city, Abidjan, where two people died in clashes on Thursday after a Muslim cleric was killed during a house-to-search search for rebels, whose power base is among the country's minority Muslim community.

Ivory Coast has been split in two for five months by a conflict which has claimed hundreds of lives and driven hundreds of thousands from their homes.



Ivorian leader under pressure
20 Feb 03 |  Africa
Profile: Seydou Elimane Diarra
25 Jan 03 |  Africa
Country profile: Ivory Coast
21 Nov 02 |  Country profiles

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