Ivory Coast President Alassane Ouattara and his main rival, Henri Konan Bédié, were in talks for the first time Wednesday since an election crisis that has claimed scores of lives.
Ouattara and Bédié, an 86-year-old former president, arrived at an upmarket hotel in Abidjan amid a swarm of reporters, several hours after the much-awaited meeting was announced by the government.
“It was a first meeting to break the ice and restore trust,” President Ouattara said.
Opposition chief Bédié added: “We have been able to break through the wall of ice and the wall of silence.”
The two men said further meetings would also take place.
Their talks are the first since Ouattara secured the October 31 election by more than 94 percent but the West African nation is mired in a dispute after opposition leaders rejected the vote, accusing him of breaching the two-term limit for the presidency.
More clashes broke out over Ouattara’s reelection on Tuesday as West African nations and France called for dialogue to end tensions over his contested third term.
Communications Minister Sidi Tiémoko Touré told reporters that the official toll now stood at 85 dead and 484 injured, many of them in the southeast of the country. Of the fatalities, 34 occurred before the election, 20 on voting day and 31 afterwards.
Touré added that 225 people had been arrested, of whom 45 were in custody and 167 had been charged.
The country’s top court validated Ouattara’s election victory on Monday.
For many Ivorians, painful memories have been stirred of the aftermath of disputed elections in 2010 that unleashed a brief civil war in the West African country, claiming around 3,000 lives and prompting an estimated 1.3 million people to flee their homes.
The face-to-face between Ouattara and Bedie follows a clamour from the UN, EU, former colonial power France and Ivory Coast’s neighbours for efforts to ease the tension.
The country is the world’s top cocoa producer and its major city, Abidjan, is a regional business hub.
More than 8,000 people have streamed out of the country to seek refuge in neighbouring states, especially Liberia, the UN’s refugee agency said on Tuesday.
More than half of them are children, many of whom have arrived unaccompanied or separated from their parents.
Ouattara, in a speech on Monday, proposed a meeting with Bedie, whom he respectfully described as his “elder”.
In its response, Bedie’s PDCI party on Wednesday set down several conditions for such talks, including the lifting of the home blockades and the end of judicial procedures against arrested leaders.
Ouattara and Bedie have been central figures in Ivorian politics for decades, with each claiming the mantel of Felix Houphouet-Boigny, the highly popular first post-independence president.
The venue for their meeting, the Golf Hotel in Abidjan, has historic resonance. It was where Ouattara, as president-elect, set up his headquarters during the 2010-2011 crisis when the incumbent president, Laurent Gbagbo, refused to step down after being defeated at the ballot box.
Ouattara’s erstwhile allies at the hotel included Bedie; the two men fell out in 2018.
(FRANCE 24 with AFP)