UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs
COTE D IVOIRE: Mbeki's crucial peace ruling remains under wraps
ABIDJAN, 13 Apr 2005 (IRIN) - On the eve of a meeting slated to kick off disarmament in volatile Cote d'Ivoire, South African President Thabo Mbeki has informed all signatories to a new peace deal of his final ruling on a key chapter of the accord.
Parties to the more than two-year civil war in what once was a haven of peace and prosperity in troubled West Africa, last week signed a new peace accord in Pretoria but were unable to end a row over who would be eligible to run for the presidency in elections this year.
The unfinished business was left in the hands of Mbeki, causing some scepticism over whether this latest accord would bring an end to the country's civil war.
"Thabo Mbeki has already written to all the signatories of the Pretoria Agreement with his decision, some will have received the letters yesterday, others today," said Mbeki's spokesman in Pretoria, Bheki Khumalo, but could not give details of the decision.
"It is for the signatories to disclose the contents of the letter. President Mbeki is awaiting their response," Khumalo told IRIN.
The ruling by the internationally-appointed mediator concerns controversial Article 35, which was previously invoked to prevent opposition leader Alassane Ouattara from contesting presidential elections on the grounds that he did not have two Ivorian parents.
Ouattara has the backing of rebels who seized control of the northern half of Cote d'Ivoire in September 2002.
Parliament has amended the clause to allow a candidate with one Ivorian to run, opening the way for Ouattara to run, but President Laurent Gbagbo was insisting the reform be endorsed by a referendum which would be difficult to hold while the country remains split in two.
After three days of talks last week in Pretoria, attended by Gbagbo and the leader of the New Forces rebel movement Guillaume Soro, no consensus was reached on the matter. A final decision was left for Mbeki after consultation with UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, and AU Chairman Olusegun Obasanjo.
According to diplomats, Mbeki is expected to have ruled in favour of allowing Ouattara, who has a Burkinabe mother, to stand in the elections due to held in October. He was blocked from standing in the last presidential election in 2000.
Diplomats fear such a decision could be met with violence from pro-Gbagbo militia in Abidjan.
Ouattara, leader of the Rally of the Republicans (RDR), is a Muslim and has a strong support base in the Islamic north of the country under rebel control.
Although parties remained tight lipped about the Mbeki ruling, plans were going ahead for Thursday's crucial meeting in the rebel strong-hold of Bouake.
"Thursday will be the resumption of contact between the (government) Defence and Security Forces and the (rebel) New Forces marking the beginning of a new contract for DDR," Richard Donwahi, head of the National Committee for Disarmament, Demobilisation and Reintegration (CNDDR), told IRIN on Wednesday.
The meeting, arranged in Pretoria, will be the first face-to-face meeting between rebels and the National Armed Forces of Cote d'Ivoire (FANCI) since November when the government air force attacked rebel positions.
"We are going to Bouake. This is another example of the military taking the initiative in the path to peace," FANCI spokesman Colonel Yao Yao Jules told IRIN.
It will be the first real test of the two sides commitment to the promises for a "definitive" end to war, and an "immediate" start to disarmament made in Pretoria.
Then, the opposing sides reaffirmed a January 2003 peace accord and promised an immediate start to a long delayed programme of Disarmament, Demobilisation and Reintegration (DDR) for the rebels and for some 4,000 irregular new recruits to the national army.
Earlier this week, a rebel press statement accused Gbagbo of recruiting 3,000 Liberian child mercenaries into militias causing brief concern that the Bouake meeting could be called off.
"The meeting will go ahead as planned - we just wanted to tell the international community and Mbeki that while we are talking about peace, and reconciliation he [Gbagbo] is recruiting young Liberians to fight," said New Forces spokesman, Sesse Soundou.
Analysts say that time is running out for disarmament to be finished before elections scheduled for mid-October.
Constance Newman, the US Assistant of the Secretary of State for African Affairs, met with Gbagbo this week to apply quiet pressure for results, say diplomats.
However, potential problems continue to simmer, the latest being the arrest of Commander Mbahia Koffi Marcellin in Abidjan at 2 a.m. on Wednesday morning in connection with rumours of another military coup, his wife told IRIN.
"Our house was circled this morning by armed gendarmes, and they took away my husband. But he hasn't done anything. He's military, but he doesn't even work anymore, he's always around the house," said Marcellin.
Marcellin has not served as an officer since previous accusations of coup plotting were made in 2000.
Earlier this week, in the volatile western region, a UN base manned by Bangladeshi peacekeepers was attacked by an unidentified group which fired on the base 15-20 times. There were no deaths or injuries in the incident on Sunday evening.
It was the first such attack on a UN base. Night-time patrols have been stepped up as a result, said a UN spokesman.
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