Laurent Gbagbo, the president, and Charles Konan Banny, the prime minister, from the transitional government met Guillaume Soro, leader of the New Forces rebels, and opposition leaders Henri Konan Bedie and Alassane Ouattara on Tuesday to discuss a national identity scheme which has delayed elections scheduled to be held before the end of October.

Diplomats and United Nations officials have said it will now be impossible to carry out elections by the October 31 deadline set under a peace plan aimed at reuniting the country which was split by a civil war in 2002.

Sidiki Konate, a spokesman for the rebels who control the north of the country, told reporters: "There was no final statement because there was no agreement.

"We have therefore asked the prime minister to consult with all the parties to find a solution to the current blockages."

Konan Banny was more positive about the outcome telling reporters the process of issuing identity papers to 3.5million undocumented people in the country would be speeded up.

Small steps

He said: "It's a process of small steps and I think today a good step was made and whatever step remains to be taken, we will take it. We mustn't be in a hurry."

The identification programme will enable people to take part in the polls and is viewed as a key requirement - along with disarmament of the rebels and government fighters - for holding free and fair elections.

Around 7,000 UN and 4,000 French peacekeepers are deployed in the buffer zone between the rebel-held north and the south under the control of transitional president Laurent Gbagbo.

New deadline

The Security Council is due to meet later this month to consider a new deadline for the elections and whether to extend Gbagbo's mandate after giving him up to 12 more months in power when his five-year term ended last October without elections.
   
Gbagbo insists he is the country's lawful leader until a successor is chosen through elections but rebel and opposition groups oppose any further extension of his rule.

Thousands of people were killed in the West African country after a mutiny by soldiers in September 2002 escalated into a full-blown civil war. An uneasy truce was brokered in 2003 but efforts to reunite the country have so far failed.