Guillaume Soro, leader of the New Forces rebels that occupy the north of war-divided Cote d’Ivoire attended his first cabinet meeting in over a year on Wednesday.
Up to now Soro had refused to travel to the main city Abidjan in the government-controlled south after President Laurent Gbagbo’s forces broke a long-held ceasefire agreement in November 2004.
The rebel leader late last year was named minister for reconstruction and reinsertion – a new post and the number-two position in government.
All but three of the current government’s 32 ministers attended the session seen as a key first step towards staging elections by October 2006 – a new poll deadline set after the country failed to hold elections in 2005.
On Tuesday Soro and Gbagbo met for closed-door talks - only the second time the two have met face to face on home soil since war began in September 2002.
Charles Konan Banny took stewardship of a shaky peace deal when he assumed office as prime minister in December 2005 after intervention by African and UN mediators. In his three months in office, Banny has breathed some life into a foundering peace process, selecting a new cabinet and launching an elections commission.
But key challenges remain, not least the disarmament of thousands of rebel and pro-government militia fighters – one of the main factors throwing the elections schedule off track last year.
A cabinet statement is to be issued on Wednesday evening. Also in attendance in Abidjan were Congo’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Adolphe Adada, whose country holds the rotating African Union chairmanship, and head of the UN mission in Cote d’Ivoire Pierre Schori.
Some 7,000 UN peacekeepers are in Cote d’Ivoire, working with some 4,000 troops from former colonial power France to keep the warring sides apart.