February 20, 2006

Disarmament slips down agenda in rebel Ivory Coast

By Loucoumane Coulibaly

KORHOGO, Ivory Coast (Reuters) - Foreign mediators are
piling pressure on armed factions in divided Ivory Coast to
disarm in time for October elections, but rebels holding the
north show no sign of laying down their guns.

A new cultural center in the northern town of Korhogo and
fresh coats of paint on the town's administrative buildings
also suggest the rebels in charge are in no hurry to leave.

Foreign mediators helping to oversee the implementation of
a peace process to reunite the country and stage elections by
October 31 repeated their call for disarmament at a meeting in
the government-controlled economic capital Abidjan on Friday.

But such calls have little impact in the north, separated
from the south since a brief civil war in 2002-03.

"We have to ... bring Ivorians to understand that
disarmament is not necessarily the priority," said Cherif
Ousmane, a rebel commander from the rebel headquarters Bouake
in town for the cultural centre's opening at the weekend.

For Ousmane and other northerners, disarmament is
unthinkable until their status as Ivorian citizens is resolved.

The divisive question of identity -- who really qualifies
as a "pure" Ivorian -- lies at the heart of the war which
exploded when rebels tried to oust the president and seized the
north of the world's top cocoa grower in September 2002.

Former Prime Minister Alassane Ouattara, who enjoys strong
support among the north's Muslim majority, was barred from
standing as president in 2000 by a clause requiring candidates
to prove both their parents were Ivorian-born.

Thousands of people of northern origin in both halves of
the country have no identity papers. Many say police or
soldiers loyal to President Laurent Gbagbo have confiscated or
ripped them up during house-to-house searches or at roadblocks.

The National Statistics Institute, which will administer
the elections, has said it will issue special papers to
citizens without identity documents allowing them to vote, if
they first undergo a "hearing" in which village chiefs and
local officials testify to the applicant's Ivorian origins.


Rebels say disarming before new identity papers are
distributed could leave northerners further isolated if they
still lack the documents after reunification.

"Disarmament will come about through the resolution of a
number of problems which are crucial for us ... We think that
the identification process must be the priority for Ivorians,"
Ousmane told reporters at the weekend.

The disarmament process requires both rebel and government
soldiers to turn in their weapons and take up residence in
dozens of special sites around the country, with security
provided by around 11,000 U.N. and French peacekeepers.

Members of both forces who meet the criteria would then
join a new army which would deploy across a reunited country.

This plan was supposed to be carried out last year in the
run up to presidential elections due last October, but rebels
pulled out before serious preparations began, saying Gbagbo
would try to rig the polls. Elections were delayed for a year.

A new U.N.-backed peace plan has been drawn up but like a
string of previous deals it has begun to founder as pro-Gbagbo
and opposition politicians bicker over how to interpret it.

Thousands of pro-Gbagbo youths attacked U.N. bases last
month in riots over what they said was interference by foreign
mediators. Peacekeepers fled the volatile west after shooting
dead five youths who tried to seize their weapons and vehicles.

With just over eight months before elections are due,
Ivorians are already wondering whether the plan for 2006
elections will produce just another missed deadline.

Tenin Silue, a woman in her 50s selling dough nuts on a
Korhogo street, has a son fighting with the rebels. She said
peace could only come when northerners were given due respect.

"The southerners must understand that northerners are their
brothers -- they are not superior," she said.