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Ivory Coast rebels, army restart military talks

Written by: Staff
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YAMOUSSOUKRO, Apr 1 (Reuters) Ivory Coast rebels held their first talks in eight months with army chiefs of staff today, reopening the door to disarmament negotiations to reunite the war-divided West African country.

The New Forces rebels' military commander Soumaila Bakayoko sat shoulder to shoulder with army chief General Philippe Mangou for the brief meeting in the Ivorian capital Yamoussoukrou, in the government-controlled south.

The two sides agreed to reconvene on Tuesday in the rebel stronghold Bouake to begin detailed negotiations on disarmament, joint military leadership and reform of the armed forces.

''I am very satisfied. The way in which the talks unfolded augurs better days ahead,'' Defence Minister Rene Aphing Kouassi said after the meeting at a huge glass-and-marble conference centre.

Ivory Coast, the world's largest cocoa producer, has been split in two since a 2002 uprising by northern rebels against President Laurent Gbagbo.

A brief war ended in 2003, leaving 7,000 United Nations troops and a 4,000-strong French force patrolling a buffer zone between the two sides.

The talks were held at a complex housing a peace foundation endowed by Ivory Coast's first president, Felix Houphouet-Boigny, in Yamoussoukro -- some 250 km north of the main city Abidjan.

The meeting was the latest sign of a growing detente since a new Prime Minister Charles Konan Banny, took office in December under a UN-backed plan, with a strong international mandate to organise National Elections by October.

Efforts to reunite the country, once West Africa's political and economic powerhouse, have been dogged by delays, political squabbling and on-off violence.

Banny organised a landmark meeting in February between Gbagbo and the rebels' political head Guillaume Soro, the first on Ivorian soil. The talks paved the way for Soro to return to a unity government this month, and for today's meeting.

''For me, your presence here is a concrete demonstration of your common will to progress toward peace,'' Banny told the delegates before the talks.

''Your presence symbolises the hope of a resolution to this crisis: a happy resolution is possible,'' said Banny, who did not enter the meeting.

The UN-backed roadmap, hammered out in October, called for disarmament and elections within 12 months to bring peace to the former French colony.

National polls had originally been due in October 2005 but were delayed when rebels pulled out, despite international pressure, saying Gbagbo would cheat.

At February's meeting, Gbagbo and Soro agreed to issue new identity cards to citizens requiring them at the elections -- a key demand of the rebels, who said thousands of northerners lack adequate papers.

The divisive issue of who should sit on the country's independent electoral commission has also been quietly resolved under Banny's stewardship.

REUTERS SHB RAI2251

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