August 7, 2006

Ivorian president says he’ll rule until elections

By Loucoumane Coulibaly

ABIDJAN (Reuters) - Ivory Coast President Laurent Gbagbo
has said he wants to hold long-delayed elections by the end of
the year but insisted he will stay in office in the war-divided
nation until they take place.

His statement late on Sunday on the eve of Independence Day
appeared to throw down the gauntlet to the United Nations which
must decide next month whether to further extend Gbagbo's
mandate if polls are not held by a scheduled Oct 31 deadline.

A U.N.-backed peace plan for the world's top cocoa grower,
which has been divided since a 2002/2003 civil war, had already
prolonged Gbagbo's expired mandate for up to 12 months from Oct
31 last year after elections failed to take place then.

But most experts now concede that repeated delays in the
peace process make it almost impossible to hold polls by the
end of October, raising the question of whether Gbagbo's
mandate should be further extended despite objections from

In a TV broadcast on the eve of Ivory Coast's Independence
Day, Gbagbo spelled out his determination to stay in office.

"I can reassure Ivorians that in accordance with the
constitution ... the presidents of the Republic and of the
National Assembly are occupying, and will occupy, their roles
until the next presidential and legislative elections," he

Rebels who occupy the north of the country and political
opponents have accused Gbagbo and his supporters of trying to
cling to power and of delaying and disrupting identification
and disarmament schemes that are key to the holding of

"What he is doing is preparing public opinion for the fact
that elections can't happen in October and staking out his
territory," one longtime foreign resident in Abidjan, who
follows Ivorian affairs closely, told Reuters.

"It is very clear to most Ivorians that elections can't
happen in October, so the question is going to be what happens
to Mr. Gbagbo. That is clearly the next flashpoint," he added,
asking not to be named.


Pro-Gbagbo militants in the government-controlled south
have staged riots and protests this year, including violent
attacks on U.N. personnel and installations in January, against
what they say is foreign meddling in the West African country.

Gbagbo said he was committed to the holding of elections,
which U.N. officials hope will seal the reunification of the
country after several years of conflict.

"We absolutely want elections by the end of this year," the
president said.

In recent weeks, at least three people have been killed in
clashes over a controversial pre-election identity scheme,
which aims to provide identity papers to undocumented Ivorians
to allow them to vote.

Supporters of Gbagbo have opposed the scheme, saying it
could be used to give voting rights to foreigners, especially
immigrants from the north, who support the opposition.

In a comment that threatened to severely restrict the scope
of the identification scheme, Gbagbo said nationality papers
would not automatically be issued along with birth

Undocumented Ivorians have been going to identification
hearings presided over by magistrates seeking both birth
certificates and ID papers.

"No identity documents will be issued during the hearings,"
Gbagbo said. He did not explain why, but the announcement
seemed to herald more hitches for voter registration.

On Friday, a program to disarm militia groups was suspended
amid concerns too few weapons were being surrendered, U.N.
officials said.

(Additional reporting by Peter Murphy)