AFRICA

Rebels in Ivory Coast

Join Government

YAMOUSSOUKRO, Ivory Coast -- Ivory Coast's rebels, casting aside their battledress for suits, took seats yesterday in a power-sharing government meant to reunite the West African country fractured by more than six months of war.

Their arrival in the nominal capital, Yamoussoukro, ended weeks of stalling that had kept people on edge. Fighting since a failed coup in September has killed thousands of people and driven more than a million from their homes.

The three rebel factions agreed during talks in Ghana to attend the cabinet meeting in Yamoussoukro, just a short helicopter ride from their central stronghold of Bouake.

But the rebels have warned that they will pull out if their demands are not met. The rebels had refused to take up nine seats during two previous cabinet meetings because they said President Laurent Gbagbo had reneged on a peace deal.

Troops from other West African countries and France, the former colonial power, mounted a tight guard outside the huge hall in Yamoussoukro.

But inside, the mood was relaxed as rebels sat down for the first time with colleagues from Gbagbo's party and the political opposition.

Reuters

EUROPE

French Rally Against

Pension Plan Reforms

PARIS -- Hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets across France, crippling rail and air traffic and shutting many schools, to protest state pension reforms.

Organizers said 700,000 people had taken part in scores of rallies across the country. Police put the total at 320,000.

"The government's tactics border on fascism," said a town hall worker, Marc Estrada. "The public response speaks for itself."

The protests came as the conservative government prepares to unveil plans on April 11 to overhaul the pay-as-you-go pension system, which is creaking under the weight of an aging population.

Similar reform plans were abandoned by the previous conservative government after crippling strikes in 1995 and were partly blamed for the administration's downfall in 1997.

Reuters

Greek Cypriot Rejects

Counterpart's Offer

NICOSIA, Cyprus -- The Greek Cypriot leader rejected a peace bid by his Turkish counterpart and instead appealed to him to reconsider a U.N. plan for reunifying the war-divided island.

President Tassos Papadopoulos challenged the Turkish Cypriot leader, Rauf Denktash, to accept the plan by U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan "as a basis for negotiations."

Annan blamed Denktash for the collapse of reunification talks in the Netherlands last month. Papadopoulos embraced the U.N. plan but Denktash rejected it.

On Wednesday, Denktash sent a letter to Papadopoulos offering concessions designed to increase confidence and contacts between Greek and Turkish Cypriots.

Associated Press

THE AMERICAS

Cuba Threatens Force

To End Ferry Hijacking

HAVANA -- Cuban officials threatened to use force to free about 40 hostages being held on a ferry by hijackers who want to take the boat to the United States.

The small ferry, which usually runs between Havana and suburbs across the bay, was commandeered in Havana Bay early Wednesday by eight to 10 men armed with a handgun and knives and forced to sail north toward Florida.

But the boat ran out of fuel 30 miles offshore and drifted until Cuban officials persuaded the hijackers to allow the ferry to be towed to the port of Mariel, west of Havana.

Reuters

Opposition Leading

Separatists in Quebec

MONTREAL -- Quebec's opposition Liberals are slightly ahead of the ruling Parti Quebecois just days after a key television debate among provincial party leaders, according to a poll.

Political pundits declared Liberal leader Jean Charest the winner of Monday's debate but stressed that race was still too close to call in the April 14 election in the French-speaking province of 7.3 million people.

The Leger Marketing poll, the first since the debate, showed the pro-unity Liberals nudging up two points to 42 percent compared with the latest survey while the Parti Quebecois, which advocates separation from Canada, was holding at 40 percent.

Reuters

Ivorian Prime Minister Seydou Diarra, right, huddles with representatives from two rebel groups, Guillaume Soro, center, and Hamed Bakayoko.