Ivorian protesters warned to keep off streets

President Laurent Gbagbo has called on young militants and protesters to keep off the streets this weekend as tensions mount in the West African country over Gbagbo’s right to remain in power.

A presidential ballot was to have been held on Sunday, but Gbagbo cancelled the vote last month, saying the nation was not ready. Both rebels who control the north and opposition leaders agreed, but they reject Gbagbo’s claim that the Constitution allows him to remain in power after Sunday.

Opposition and pro-Gbagbo youth militants are preparing rallies on Saturday and Sunday, respectively, in the main city, Abidjan, to celebrate the national soccer team’s qualification for the 2006 World Cup.

But many fear the rallies will quickly turn political—and violent.

“On October 30, there will be nothing ... just go quietly to work, and nothing will happen to you,” Gbagbo said in a televised speech broadcast on Wednesday.

London-based rights group Amnesty International has warned violence could flare anew in the war-divided country if a solution isn’t found soon to the country’s bitter crisis.

Gbagbo said street protests have been banned since June and are illegal.
Such protests in the past have led to widespread violence and harsh crackdowns by security forces.

“Everybody should know that street marches are prohibited until we have peace, until the elections, and you, dear friends, are charged with applying this ... decision,” Gbagbo said.

Côte d’Ivoire, the world’s top cocoa producer, has been split in two since rebels launched a failed coup in 2002 and seized the northern half of the country. Despite repeated peace deals, neither side has disarmed.

Tension has been rising for weeks as both sides argue over the country’s future.

Gbagbo has vowed to stay in office after Sunday—until elections are held. Rebels and opposition parties have demanded he step down and say they won’t recognise his authority to govern after that date.

The African Union and the United Nations Security Council have tried to ease tension, both coming out in favour of an extension of Gbagbo’s mandate and urging the appointment of a new prime minister to shepherd Côte d’Ivoire toward elections no later than October 30 2006.

Authorities have said a new prime minister would be elected by Sunday, but it was not clear whether that would happen.

According to the AU proposals, the new prime minister is to be chosen during a summit chaired by South African President Thabo Mbeki and Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo in the capital, Yamoussoukro. No date has been set.

Obasanjo is mourning the death of his wife, who died in Spain last week. Mbeki, who brokered an April peace deal among warring parties, is helping mediate the crisis.

Rebels say the premiership should go to them and have suggested either rebel leader Guillaume Soro or his second-in-command, Louis-Andre Dacoury-Tabley.

The post is currently held by Seydou Diarra, who was picked to head the government of national reconciliation in January 2003 under the terms of a French-brokered peace deal.

Although Diarra has been widely criticised in the local media for being too soft, some say he could be reappointed because he is considered neutral and therefore has the approval of all sides.

Other contenders has been circulating in the local media this week, with Central Bank of West African States Governor Charles Konan Banny, former agriculture minister Lambert Kouassi Konan, former UN diplomat Amara Essy and former justice minister Jacqueline Oble as likely candidates.—Sapa-AP

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