Côte d'Ivoire prepares to disarm

Protagonists in Côte d’Ivoire’s two years of conflict were meeting on Monday in the capital, Yamoussoukro, to wrap up preparations for a long-awaited disarmament campaign set to open this week.

The meeting marks the first gathering of all parties to the conflict since a summit of African heads of state in late July relaunched the peace process in the divided West African state, which has been riven by conflict since a failed coup in September 2002 erupted into civil war.

Ranged around the table alongside President Laurent Gbagbo were the rebels who retain control of the mostly Muslim north two years after their uprising, as well as the increasingly united political opposition.

Also represented at Monday’s meeting was the quadripartite military group that announced last week that disarmament of all militia and paramilitary groups would begin, as scheduled, on Friday.

Allies from Gbagbo’s Ivorian Popular Front were also present at the day-long meeting convened at the headquarters of the Felix Houphouet Boigny foundation, named for the post-independence president.

The rebel and national armed forces have met regularly with representatives from the United Nations and French peacekeeping troops helping to reconcile the divided country in the run-up to elections set for October 2005.

They had initially foreseen a March start date to the disarmament programme, but political infighting and violence in the main city, Abidjan, following a savage crackdown on a pro-peace rally by security forces postponed the campaign indefinitely.

An estimated 30 000 combatants—25 000 of them rebel troops—are expected to enrol in the disarmament exercise, which is to begin on Friday with the regrouping of combatants in eastern Côte d’Ivoire near the borders with Ghana and Burkina Faso, national disarmament chairperson Alain Donwahi said last week.

The multistage process will likely take “several months”, Donwahi added, moving from the restive west on the border with Liberia through the centre and finally to the rebel-held north.

The rebels have said they will hold fast to their weapons until a sheaf of political reforms—addressing key questions of national identity and land ownership that were catalysts of their uprising—are passed by the legislature, which resumed sessions last week.

A group of protesters on Monday ransacked a UN office in the central rebel stronghold Bouake, angered by the looming disarmament programme.

“It was a pretty violent demonstration because they thought the UN troops were there to organise disarmament,” a witness said from Bouake.

UN observers are currently in Bouake to protect the town’s banks, not to conduct disarmament.

Rebel opposition is not the only obstacle that could hinder the process, a diplomat in Abidjan said on condition of anonymity.

“Even if there exists a measure of willingness to disarm, it does not mean that the process will go smoothly, under any conditions,” he said. “Each party is trying to gauge the sincerity of the other before they will commit, which means that last-minute difficulties can arise at any point.”—Sapa-AFP


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