UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs
COTE D IVOIRE: Mbeki makes his decision ahead of crucial disarmament meeting
ABIDJAN, 13 Apr 2005 (IRIN) - President Thabo Mbeki has asked President Laurent Gbagbo to use his special presidential powers under the constitution to allow all the parties that signed last week's Pretoria peace accord to present candidates in elections for a new head of state next October.
A letter sent by Mbeki, the chief mediator in the sputtering Ivorian peace process, to all five signatories of the Pretoria accord, was read out on state television on Wednesday evening - the eve of a meeting slated to kick off disarmament in volatile Cote d'Ivoire.
The talks on disarmament in the northern town of Bouake will bring together rebels who seized control of the northern half of the country in September 2002, and the loyalist army which holds the south.
But a sticking point holding up disarmament has been the pro-Gbagbo camp's steady refusal to allow rebel-backed opposition leader Alassana Ouattara to run for president.
Mbeki's letter however stated that all parties who signed in favour of peace should contest this year's elections, and it effectively called on Gbagbo to clear the way for his main rival to run for office.
In Pretoria on 6 April, the parties to the more than two-year civil war in what once was a haven of prosperity, agreed to seek peace but were unable to resolve their longstanding row over presidential eligibility.
The unfinished business was left to Mbeki, causing some scepticism over whether this latest in a string of moribund accords would finally bring an end to the country's civil war.
"The mediator is asking ... President Gbagbo to make use of the powers bestowed upon the president under the constitution of Cote d'Ivoire, in particular Article 48, to give legal backing to the above decision," the president's spokesman Desire Tagro quoted the letter as saying.
Ouattara was previously blocked from contesting presidential elections in 2000 on the grounds that he did not have two Ivorian parents as he has a Burkinabe mother.
Parliament had amended the clause to allow a candidate with one Ivorian to run, opening the way for Ouattara to stand, but Gbagbo was insisting the reform be endorsed by a referendum difficult to hold while the country remains split in two.
Article 48 allows the president to take extraordinary measures when institutions or territorial integrity are at stake. Mbeki urged Gbagbo to consult the speaker of parliament and the constitutional council.
The three days of talks last week in Pretoria were attended by Gbagbo and the leader of the New Forces rebel movement Guillaume Soro, as well as Ouattara, opposition leader Henri Konan Bedie and Prime Minister Seydou Diarra.
But diplomats fear that Mbeki's 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.
Attendees of Thursday's disarmament meeting, told IRIN that Mbeki's decision would not detract from the schedule.
"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 a 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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