BOUAKE, Ivory Coast – Ivory Coast rebels agreed to a cease-fire Thursday after a steamroller offensive that has claimed half the country in just over two weeks, West African mediators announced -- saying the way was now clear for peace talks.
"I think we have achieved an important first step," negotiator Mohamed Ibn Chambas told journalists, after foreign ministers of five West African nations flew into the heart of rebel-held territory to press the cease-fire.
Speaking in the central town of Bouake, where the talks took place, he said a cease-fire deal would be signed in the nation's capital Yamoussoukro on Friday.
Chambas said he hoped the mediators would then be able to discuss the rebels' grievances. There was no word how long the cease-fire was to last.
Government officials were not immediately available to comment.
Ivory Coast has been split in two since a Sept. 19 uprising by disgruntled soldiers, who have captured Bouake and the northern opposition stronghold of Korhogo, as well as most of the north. About 300 people died in the first days of the uprising -- the country's deadliest ever.
Desperate to avert an all-out war in a nation seen as an anchor of stability in a volatile region, top West African envoys flew into Bouake to urge the rapidly advancing rebels to stop hostilities.
President Laurent Gbagbo's government -- having yielded the north of Ivory Coast to the rebels in just 15 days -- has made clear it is open to a cease-fire. The government has agreed to the draft approved by the rebels.
Chambas said the six-person rebel delegation assured him the cease-fire agreement would be binding on insurgents across the country.
"We impressed upon them that we should not let the sound of guns overshadow the talks that are important in dealing with what their grievances are and how to go about resolving them," he said.
But a member of West African delegation, speaking on condition of anonymity, said he had reservations about whether the peace envoys had indeed been speaking to the top leaders of the shadowy movement. He did not elaborate.
The peace mission, including foreign ministers from five nations, arrived in Bouake in French army helicopters and were driven to a French school through quiet streets, which betrayed no signs of the conflict that has split the nation in two.
At the school, rebel leaders kept the foreign ministers waiting for an hour before driving up in a convoy of pickup trucks. Uniformed rebel Tuo Fozie climbed out, shook hands and saluted.
Heavily armed French soldiers, part of a 1,000-strong force in the former French colony, stood on guard among the palm trees and flowers planted in the schoolyard. Outside the school, rebels, dressed in a mix of uniforms and T-shirts, manned a roadblock.
The meeting itself provided mediators their first look at those claiming to direct Ivory Coast's ascendant rebels. One rebel representative, not immediately identified, told journalists afterward he was satisfied with the deal.
The insurgents include a core group of 750-800 soldiers dismissed from the army for suspected disloyalty. Well-armed and well-disciplined, they have spread north and west.
In a sign of their expanding reach, they entered the far-eastern town of Bouna on Tuesday night, but left the following day.
Their ultimate goal is Abidjan, one of West Africa's leading cities, and the key to holding a once-stable, now-shattered country that remains one of the region's economic powerhouses.
Residents in isolated northern towns at times describe loyalist forces abandoning their posts without a fight, as rebels approached.
"We had heard rumors that the rebels were coming so they changed into civilian clothes before they came," one man in the eastern town of Bouna, reached by telephone, said of the loyalists.
In northwestern Odienne, a resident said there had been no shooting when the rebels arrived. "We can't really talk about resistance. They came into town without anything happening," he said.
The embattled government has failed to move on its repeated threats to rout the rebels.
"Our units are in a defensive position," said Lt. Col. Philippe Mangou, the commanding officer in Yamoussoukro. "Our troops' morale is high. We are just waiting for the order to march on Bouake," he added Thursday.
Rebels say only a formidable French military presence at Yamoussoukro is blocking their drive south there.
The French say they are there to protect foreign nationals and provide logistical support to the Ivorian army. Ivory Coast held about 20,000 French and about 2,000 Americans before the uprising.
French and American troops have evacuated around 2,500 foreign nationals from rebel-held areas, ferrying them through Yamoussoukro.