Côte d'Ivoire warring factions agree to disarm

Warring factions in Côte d’Ivoire have agreed to begin a long-delayed disarmament campaign on May 14, the latest bid to stave off a resumption of hostilities in this war-divided nation.

Both sides agreed on Saturday to begin pulling heavy arms away from front lines that divide the nation beginning April 21, according to a joint statement signed by Army Chief Colonel Philippe Mangou and rebel forces chief of staff Colonel Soumaila Bakayoko.

Disarmament would start afterward, lasting from May 14 to July 31, the statement said.

Rebels have controlled the northern half of Côte d’Ivoire since a failed coup attempt in September 2002 sparked a civil war in the world’s top cocoa producer.

Deep differences between the two sides have simmered ever since, delaying the start of disarmament several times.

“The war is finished,” Mangou declared confidently after Saturday’s meeting. His words were echoed by Bakayoko.

The talks in rebel-held Bouake followed an earlier round on Thursday—the first such meeting in more than two years—that ended without agreement. Prime Minister Seydou Diarra attended along with officials from France and the United Nations, which both have peacekeepers deployed in the country.

Ble Goude, the fiery leader of the sometimes-violent pro-government Young Patriots militia who has rallied supporters to march on rebel zones in the past, told The Associated Press he was optimistic.

“We’re waiting for that to become a reality, because its not the first time that we’ve talked about disarmament,” Goude said.
“We’ll do all we can to support this process. We’re optimistic.”

Speaking on condition of anonymity, a rebel official said earlier the talks had run into problems over laying out a calendar for disarmament. Rebels wanted government forces to first repair buildings they destroyed during air raids in November, he said. It was not clear whether the issue was resolved.

The rebels rejoined Côte d’Ivoire’s power-sharing government on Friday, ending a five-month boycott launched after government forces broke a ceasefire with a bombing raid on rebel positions.

Two rebel ministers attended the Cabinet meeting in the commercial capital, Abidjan, on Friday. Several others, including main rebel leader Guillaume Soro, stayed behind in Bouake for Saturday’s talks.

“We are coming back with great hopes and to show that we are committed to peace,” said Issa Diakite, a rebel minister in charge of territorial administration. The sports minister also attended Friday afternoon’s Cabinet session.

Rebels have controlled the northern half of Côte d’Ivoire since a failed coup attempt in September 2002 sparked a civil war in the world’s top cocoa producer.

Fighting eased with a French-brokered peace deal in January 2003 that established a unity government and handed nine rebels Cabinet posts.

Rebel ministers withdrew from the government in November after army forces broke a long-standing ceasefire with a bombing raid on the rebel-held north that killed nine French peacekeepers and an American aid worker.

French troops retaliated by wiping out Côte d’Ivoire’s small air force, sparking anti-foreigner riots that prompted thousands to flee the country.

In an attempt to resolve one of the most contentious issues in the conflict, South African President Thabo Mbeki addressed a letter to all parties Wednesday calling on all candidates to be allowed to contest elections slated for October.

This would include President Laurent Gbagbo’s most serious rival, former Prime Minister Alassane Ouattara, who was barred from the 2000 presidential race by a constitutional nationality clause.

Ouattara denies government claims that his mother, whose family was from neighbouring Burkina Faso, is not Ivorian.

Opposition leaders welcomed Mbeki’s proposals, but the ruling party’s Notre Voie newspaper called the decision “a disruption of all social norms”.

Gbagbo has made no public comment, but he had previously argued that the Constitution can be changed only by a national referendum.

A buffer zone, separating warring factions, is patrolled by 6 000 UN troops and 4 000 French peacekeepers, whom Gbagbo’s party and pro-government militias have been demanding quit the country, charging they are partisan. - Sapa-AP

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