Ivorian Prime Minister Seydou Diarra and a three-member delegation of the rebel Mouvement Patriotique de Cote d'Ivoire (MPCI) met in Accra, Ghana, on Friday to discuss the implementation of an agreement under which the rebels are to be included in a new government of national reconciliation (GNR).
Their encounter came one day after a committee set up to monitor the accord held its first meeting in Abidjan.
The closed-door meeting was presided by the newly appointed Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General for Cote d'Ivoire, Albert Tevoedjre, who took up his functions on Tuesday.
The Follow-up Committee was set up under the Linas-Marcoussis Agreement, signed on 24 January in the French locality of the same name by Cote d'Ivoire's main political parties and the three rebel movements involved in the crisis. The Follow-Up Committee's mandate is to ensure that the peace agreement is implemented.
The French-backed accord stipulates that the committee has the power to notify national, regional and international bodies of "obstructions and deficiencies" in the implementation of the agreement, aimed at bringing peace to Cote d'Ivoire.
The committee also includes France, EU, the IMF, World Bank, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), the G-8 and La Francophonie.
Rebels' role in new government
Sensitive issues relating to the agreement include the involvement of the rebels in the government. News that they were to receive the defence and interior portfolios fuelled protests earlier this month, during some of which French citizens and establishments were attacked. Pro-government organisations have said that they will not allow armed elements to sit in government as that would legitimise the rebellion. However, the MPCI said it would not back down, especially since an agreement had been reached at a summit on Cote d'Ivoire in Paris on 25-26 January to give them the two ministries.
"I am just going to Accra to hear what Seydou Diarra has to say ... there are no more compromises to be made. Everything has been discussed already", MPCI Secretary-General Guillaume Soro told the press. The MPCI has also raised the stakes, claiming that it would descend on the economic capital, Abidjan, if the GNR was not installed by midnight on Sunday.
On Wednesday, the US House of Representative Subcommittee on Africa said Cote d'Ivoire was a "disaster in the making", but that it hoped the Linas-Marcoussis agreement would mark the beginning of the end of the conflict.
However, subcommittee chairman Ed Royce added: "It is hard for me to see how this French-backed peace plan is not a reward to rebels who fought their way to the negotiating table, and if the plan is followed, into legitimate positions of political power. This may be a realistic policy given the international community's level of commitment to resolving this conflict, but the price paid, legitimizing the rebels' tactics, is high.
"It certainly seems to do little to break the cycle of violence in West Africa, and it is not the approach that worked in Sierra Leone. The rebels are threatening to march on Abidjan if their demands on implementing the Agreement, including taking the defense and interior portfolios, are not met. Marcoussis should be supported, within reason."
Diarra, who served as prime minister during Cote d'Ivoire's 1999-2000 military junta, is expected to name his government this weekend.
Fighting continues in the west
The crisis in Cote d'Ivoire erupted on 19 September with an uprising by a section of the military, which soon developed into a rebellion. The rebels hold much of the north of the country and parts of the centre. While no major clashes have been reported there this year, since late November there have been bouts of fighting in the west between loyalist forces and two rebel groups.
On Wednesday, the UN Humanitarian Envoy Carolyn McAskie painted a bleak picture of the situation in the west, which she described as a "no-go" area, even for traditional partners such as the Red Cross, which is known for working in tough war conditions.
On Friday, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees said some 40,000 Liberian refugees were caught in fighting in the west and were seeking immediate repatriation.
UNHCR spokesperson Peter Kessler said on Friday that the organization was still struggling to find a country that would host the Liberian refugees, who feel threatened in Cote d'Ivoire but cannot return to Liberia, which is still unstable. "We have been pressing countries in West Africa to accommodate Liberian refugees who cannot return to Liberia, but so far, there has been no positive response," he said.
According to UNHCR, some 88,000 Liberian returnees, Ivorian refugees and third-country nationals have fled to Liberia because of the insecurity. Of Cote d'Ivoire five neighbours, Liberia hosts the largest number of people displaced by the Ivorian conflict.