Côte d'Ivoire leaders in peace talks amid war fears

Ivorian leaders head to peace talks on Sunday in South Africa with rebels charging that government troops are deploying for new attacks; a human rights group accusing the government of recruiting fighters from Liberia; and the government’s feared militia demanding French peacekeepers get out.

As warnings abound that Côte d’Ivoire is headed back to war, the talks were called by South African President Thabo Mbeki to revive a flagging peace process. A May 2003 ceasefire has been repeatedly violated, and there are growing doubts the country can hold planned presidential elections in October.

Rebel commander Tuo Fozie, speaking from his northern stronghold of Bouake, told reporters this week that President Laurent Gbagbo is reinforcing his troops and readying for more combat.

“Gbagbo is always playing games that hinder the peace process,” Fozie said. “We will not allow any part of the Ivorian territory to be attacked.”

He claimed the government has a combat plane on the ready in neighbouring Guinea.

United Nations peacekeepers say they have seen a build-up of armed men and munitions in western government-held towns along a buffer zone that they patrol.
They did not know if the fighters were soldiers or militiamen.

Those reports were underscored on Thursday by Human Rights Watch, which said Ivorian soldiers are recruiting hundreds of recently demobilised fighters in neighbouring Liberia to fight with the pro-government Lima Militia around three western Ivorian cocoa-belt towns.

The New York-based organization said in a report that interviews with recruited child soldiers and ex-commanders indicated recruitment had intensified in March.

Ivorian armed forces spokesperson Jules Yao Yao said he has not heard of such recruiting but “if there are people who are acting independently [to recruit], that is their problem”.

The rumbles of warlike noises have brought numerous warnings recently about Côte d’Ivoire, the world’s largest cocoa producer, which was stable for decades until a 2002 coup attempt jettisoned the country into civil war.

Last week, UN Secretary General Kofi Annan said Côte d’Ivoire may “spin out of control” unless armed militias are reined in. He said rebels and militias have not started disarming, and instead militia-type groups are mobilising across the nation.

The International Crisis Group, a Brussels-based think-tank, said more violence could precipitate “large-scale ethnic cleansing” and draw neighbouring Guinea, Mali and Burkina Faso into a regional conflict.

On Thursday, Britain urged scores of its citizens in Côte d’Ivoire to leave, saying it is closing its embassy and will be unable to evacuate them in an emergency. Ambassador David Cotes cited “rising insecurity and heightened political rhetoric” that could lead to more violence.

Ceasefire violations

Gbagbo has already violated the ceasefire twice in recent months.

Last month, pro-government fighters attacked a checkpoint in a rebel-held northern village, prompting insurgents to declare the peace process dead.

In November, Gbagbo sent his newly built-up air force on bombing runs in the north, and one air strike killed nine French peacekeepers and an American aid worker.

French troops retaliated by destroying the air force, which sparked anti-foreigner riots that led thousands to flee and brief and unprecedented battles between French Licorne peacekeepers and Ivorian forces, in which France said it killed about 20 people, including civilians.

“Licorne is killing civilians!” protesters yelled last weekend at a rally called by the government’s feared Young Patriots militia. It plans more protests to demand French troops leave on Saturday, the day before the talks.

Gbagbo’s Ivorian Popular Front party also called last week for the French to be replaced by a “neutral and credible force”. Counter-demonstrations have been organised behind rebel lines, calling for the French, Côte d’Ivoire’s former coloniser, to stay.

France, which has said it would pull out its troops if the government asks, this week proposed renewing the UN peacekeeping mission for a month to give more time for South African mediation efforts.

Mbeki has made little headway since the African Union appointed him to mediate following the November crisis in the country, where there are 6 000 UN peacekeepers and 4 000 French peacekeepers.

Frustrated by nearly two years of intransigence, the UN Security Council imposed an arms embargo in November and is weighing punitive sanctions unless the government revives peace efforts with the rebels.—Sapa-AP

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