Weapons pull-back starts in Côte d'Ivoire

Army troops and rebels began pulling back heavy weapons from front lines in Côte d’Ivoire on Thursday, a crucial step toward implementing a South African-brokered peace deal to end more than two years of civil war.

The pull-back sets the stage for a nationwide disarmament campaign, due to begin in mid-May, that many hope will bring an end to violence sparked after a failed September 2002 coup split the nation into a rebel-held north and government-held south.

In the commercial capital of Abidjan, United Nations special representative Pierre Schori told reporters the pull-back has started under the supervision of the UN and French peacekeepers.

“There was even a feeling of joy ... This is the first concrete act and an extremely positive one,” Schori said.

The withdrawal of heavy weaponry, expected to last four days, was also confirmed in the northern rebel stronghold of Bouake.

Rebel commander Lieutenant Colonel Sinima Bamba said the “operation had been going on in a serene atmosphere” although he was not able to say how many weapons have been moved back so far.

“The operation went well throughout the national territory and we believe that this will boost the peace process,” UN spokesman Hamadoun Toure said, adding they are still counting the number of weapons withdrawn.

In the front-line village of Djebonoua, south of their stronghold of Bouake, journalists saw rebels pull back two mortars under the watchful eyes of Moroccan UN peacekeepers.

In Abidjan, army spokesman Captain Francis Abodou said a number of cannons and mortars were also withdrawn from the central town of Tiebissou because the “army has always kept its word”.

During a meeting earlier this week, army chiefs and rebel commanders agreed to withdraw arms from a jagged buffer zone that divides the nation.
The weapons include all guns larger than 20mm and short-range weaponry equal to or larger than 60mm, including mortars. Anti-tank weapons and rocket-propelled grenades are not included.

The buffer zone is patrolled by 6 000 UN troops and 4 000 French peacekeepers.

South African President Thabo Mbeki has tried to breathe new life into the peace process, securing an agreement earlier this month by warring factions to end hostilities, disarm and make plans for new elections in a bid to prevent a renewed explosion of violence and chaos.—Sapa-AP