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SLUG: 2-296890 Ivory Coast/Talks (L-Only)









INTRO: French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin is in West Africa on a six-nation trip designed to help save troubled peace talks between the Ivory Coast government and rebels who control the northern part of the country. From Paris, Lisa Bryant reports both sides have criticized French mediation in its former African colony.

TEXT: Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin planned to meet Wednesday with Ivorian President Laurent Gbagbo in Abidjan before traveling on to Burkina Faso. Those talks, along with discussions Thursday with Mali's president, Alfa Toumani Toure, in Bamako, have a common goal: Finding a peaceful way to end the conflict in the Ivory Coast.

During a stopover in Togo Tuesday, Mr. de Villepin warned Ivory Coast's government and rebel leaders that no long-term military solution was possible.

Peace talks between representatives of the Ivorian government and the rebels have been underway in Togo since late October. But so far the discussions, mediated by West African states, have made little progress.

Among other demands, the rebels are calling for President Gbagbo to leave office and for new elections. Government negotiators have rejected those demands. Instead, they have suggested holding a referendum on the controversial concept of "Ivoirite," - a concept of national identity that critics consider pure racism.

Given the gulf that separates the two sides, Mr. de Villepin's diplomatic mission in West Africa will not be easy. In addition, both President Gbagbo and rebel leaders have criticized the role France has taken in the crisis.

The government argues Paris has failed to honor an old agreement that France would intervene militarily if the Ivory Coast is threatened by foreign forces. President Gbagbo has suggested the rebels are being helped by Burkina Faso. But France has so far maintained the conflict in the Ivory Coast is a purely internal one.

Moreover, the government controlled press has accused France of harboring a so-called terrorist -- opposition politician Alassane Ouattara, who remains in the French Embassy in Abidjan.

For their part, the rebels are angry that French troops in the Ivory Coast have effectively stopped their march to southern parts of the country.

In response to its critics, the French government says its actions are meant to bring a peaceful, political solution to a country once famed for its stability.

After his stop in Mali, Mr. de Villepin travels to Senegal to meet with President Abdulaye Wade, the current president of the West African group. The foreign minister ends his tour in Gabon, for talks on ways to defuse another African conflict -- in the Central African Republic. (Signed)


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