The Catholic church in Senegal hosted peace talks between the government and the Casamance separatist group, the Casamance Movement of Democratic Forces (MFDC) today. The historic meeting began with prayers and a formal ceremony at the church headquarters in Ziguinchor, the capital of the disputed southern province. Delegations from neighbouring Gambia and Guinea Bissau, which have been used as a base by the MFDC, also attended. Interior Minister Mamadou Niang read a statement by President Abdoulaye Wade, describing the occasion as an "historic day" and welcoming the "serene atmosphere" surrounding the talks. Officials and rebel leaders reaffirmed their commitment to peace in the province. Observers said the two parties had at least shown goodwill towards each other, had sat at the same table during the ceremony and were actively seeking peace. The conflict began in 1982, when the MFDC demanded independence for the tourism and agriculture-dependent province, which it says has been neglected by the central government. Since, then hundreds of people have been killed and thousands displaced by the conflict. Commentators hope these new discussions will lead to a lasting ceasefire. Since 1991 the MFDC has signed several ceasefires, all of which collapsed. President Wade, who came to office this March, has pledged to make peace a priority.
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