April 13, 2006

Detente kindles tenuous hopes of Ivory Coast peace

By Peter Murphy

ABIDJAN (Reuters) - Heading to class, law student Jacques
Koffi makes his morning stop at a roadside news stand to cast
an eye over the front pages of Ivory Coast's papers -- a
barometer of tension in the war-divided country.

"This reassures me," he said, gesturing to the tales of
political tiffs and routine government business which have
begun to take the place of hysterical rumors of rebel attacks.

"Sometimes the headlines make you feel sick with worry, but
there's nothing alarming today," he said, striding along a road
crammed with buses and communal taxis, books under his arm.

The West African country, divided since rebels tried to
topple President Laurent Gbagbo in 2002 and seized its northern
half in a short war, has been enjoying a spell of relative
detente rarely experienced since the fighting ended.

Recent steps along the elusive path to peace -- including
the rebel leader's return to a unity government -- mark a rare
break in the deadlock that has characterized the conflict in
West Africa's economic powerhouse.

In an outdoor bar in the Riviera district of the main city
Abidjan, where in January residents awoke to the explosions and
gunfire of an attack on two army bases, the mood is upbeat.

"The latest advances are good news. I feel they are getting
down to business now," said 24-year-old finance graduate
Alphonse Niamien, enjoying an evening drink with his

Memories of intense riots directed at U.N. bases in the
government-run south have begun to fade more than two months
after they brought Abidjan to a standstill. Pro-Gbagbo youths
protested against what they said was U.N. meddling.

The focus has shifted to advances achieved by new Prime
Minister Charles Konan Banny, a former banker appointed in
December as part of a U.N.-backed peace plan which demands all
sides disarm and organize elections by the end of October.

He won plaudits for bringing Gbagbo and his arch enemy,
rebel leader Guillaume Soro, together for talks in the capital
Yamoussoukro earlier this year. Opposition leaders previously
in exile also attended, giving a semblance of political


The talks set off a series of advances -- Soro is back in
Abidjan taking part in government work and a row over the
composition of the independent electoral commission has been
quietly settled.

Government and rebel military leaders will also meet to
discuss disarmament. School pupils in the rebel zone have
finally been able to sit exams and the university in the rebel
stronghold of Bouake has reopened its doors.

"I think things can carry on this way. Just (political
leaders) getting together is a good sign," Niamien said.

The conflict, which rebels say erupted over discrimination
against mainly-Muslim northerners and immigrants from nearby
states, was supposed to end with elections last October but
these failed to take place with the country still divided.

The U.N.-backed peace plan announced the same month called
on Gbagbo to stay for another 12 months flanked by a new prime
minister with extra powers to ensure disarmament and elections
to bring peace to the former French colony.

Meanwhile, 11,000 U.N. and French peacekeepers keep the
warring sides apart in their respective zones.

Banny has impressed analysts with his pro-active, hands-on
approach after a seemingly timid start. However, they warn the
potential for trouble remains.

"There have been real changes...but whether that means
things are going somewhere, I'm not sure," said one Western
diplomat, who added there was "no leverage" driving the foes to
start planning elections which he doubted would happen.

"I think the main issues are still there and they will not
get solved. I think we will see this situation last for years."

Restaurateur Benjamin Diadie in Riviera was not sure the
welcome detente would last but said it would help start a
healing process in the world's top cocoa-producing country.

"Things had gone on so long that people thought only more
fighting could settle it but now people are thinking there
could be a way out. There is a beginning of hope."