By Loucoumane Coulibaly

Abidjan - Ivory Coast's rebel leader Guillaume Soro is ready to become prime minister if asked under the latest peace plan to reunite a country split in two since 2002, a newspaper quoted him as saying on Monday.

Soro, who leads the New Forces rebels who seized the north of the world's top cocoa grower in a brief 2002-03 civil war, signed a new peace deal this month with President Laurent Gbagbo which many observers think could see him made prime minister.

"Making me the next prime minister is not a taboo subject. In 2005 I had already indicated that the prime minister's office should go to the New Forces," Soro told Ivorian daily North-South in an interview.

"I would have no fear of taking over as prime minister."

Since government and rebel negotiators began a month-long round of talks in neighbouring Burkina Faso in February, speculation has been rife that Soro would replace Charles Konan Banny, a banker appointed as prime minister under a previous United Nations-backed peace plan aiming for delayed elections in October.

"I'm not going to engage in a debate about forecasts on whether I will stay as head of government," Banny told reporters in the capital Yamoussoukro. But he added: "I will not hesitate to sacrifice myself for Ivory Coast if circumstances demand and when the time comes... I see myself as a missionary and I never imagined a mission could be forever."

Soro was back in Burkina Faso on Monday, where the latest deal was brokered, to meet members of the political opposition.

Reaction to talk of Soro's promotion has been lukewarm among Banny's traditional allies in the Democratic Party (PDCI), which ruled the former French colony for nearly 40 years and draws its staunchest support from the Akan people of Banny and former President Henri Konan Bedie, ousted in a 1999 army coup.