INTERNATIONAL

French push for peace in Ivory Coast

PARIS JAN. 3. The French Foreign Minister, Mr.Dominique de Villepin, is on an unscheduled visit to the Ivory Coast in an attempt to bring the Government and the various armed rebel factions to the negotiating table.

Mr. de Villepin said the French troops deployed in the former French colony had prevented an "open crisis".

He said France's peacekeeping effort had stopped the crisis from "boiling over into catastrophe".

Mr. de Villepin made these remarks in a newspaper interview on the eve of his sudden and surprise visit to Abidjan.

His visit comes in the midst of increasing criticism of France by the various parties involved.

The President of Ivory Coast, Laurent Gbagbo, is urging France to "recognise the fact that foreign powers, especially Liberia and Burkina Faso are involved" allegedly sending in mercenaries and arming the rebels. The rebels say the French are siding and protecting President Gbagbo and have accused France of "overstepping its mandate." France has sent over 2500 men and an impressive amount of military hardware to the Ivory Coast. The French army's declared mission is to protect foreign nationals and oversee the respect of a ceasefire agreement signed between the rebels and the Government on October 17 last.

This west African state, a former French colony, has been in the grip of what is rapidly turning into a full-fledged civil war since September 19, when rebellious army units in the South and centre of the country attempted to topple Mr. Gbagbo.

The Ivory Coast is the world's leading cocoa producer. The troubles have severely affected the cocoa crop and the world price of cocoa has gone spiralling upwards.

The crisis deepened on Thursday with rebels threatening to break the ceasefire agreement and launch an all out attack on loyalist forces. This, in retaliation against a New Year's Day bombing raid carried by the Ivorian army against a small fishing village in which at least 12 civilians were killed. France condemned the attack and said it would ask the Ivorian Government "for an explanation." Mr. de Villepin said the situation in the Ivory Coast represented a ``double risk: the aggravation of the present situation and instability in the entire region." He said France had a special responsibility towards Africa. Mr. de Villepin is expected to invite the various belligerent parties for talks to Paris, since the talks now under way in the Togolese capital Lome have been stalled for several weeks.

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