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UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs
Thursday 14 April 2005

COTE D IVOIRE: Country hangs on Gbagbo's response to Mbeki ruling

ABIDJAN, 14 Apr 2005 (IRIN) - War-torn Cote d'Ivoire on Thursday awaited to see whether President Laurent Gbagbo caves in to an international demand that he use his special powers as head of state to clear the way for his main rival to stand in presidential elections this year.

South African President Thabo Mbeki, the internationally-appointed mediator to end Cote d'Ivoire's more than two-year-old war, has asked Gbagbo to resort to his powers under the constitution to allow all political parties to present a candidate in elections planned for October.

This would include the Rally of the Republicans (RDR) headed by the head of state's arch foe, highly controversial former prime minister Alassane Ouattara.

But asked by IRIN when Gbagbo would respond, his spokesman Desire Tagro on Thursday said "the president will react to Mbeki's proposals by doing or not doing what he has recommended."

In his letter, Mbeki wrote: "I decide, as a mediator ... concerning the elections of 2005, that the constitutional council should accept the eligibility of the candidates that will be represented by the political parties which have signed the Linas-Marcoussis peace agreement."

The demand is a key component of a peace settlement struck in Pretoria on 6 April by the main players in the civil war, which itself is based on earlier largely moribund agreements spelled out in Linas Marcoussis, France, and Accra, Ghana.

A statement issued by the Ivorian presidency earlier in the day said the head of state was planning a series of meetings soon with members of civil society, including traditional chiefs, youth groups, farmers and members of the security forces to discuss the terms of the peace deal brokered by Mbeki.

There was no beating about the bush, in the response from the ruling party newspaper Notre Voie.

"It's an upheaval of all social norms," it said of the idea of Ouattara running for president. Using the sort of inflammatory language common in the country's press, it added: "Now, in Cote d'Ivoire, a non-Ivorian crook, an acknowledged thief, rapist, killer, and forger can be a presidential candidate."

Mbeki's letter was read out without further explanation on state television by Tagro on Wednesday night, the eve of a key military meeting on disarmament between the loyalist army and the New Forces rebel movement.

But the meeting on Thursday, held in the northern rebel stronghold of Bouake, broke up with no ostensible progress after more than four hours of talks between loyalist military forces, New Forces rebel commanders and UN and French peacekeepers.

Despite calls for progress from Prime Minister Seydou Diarra and Mbeki's special envoy Sokupa Silumko, delegates were unable to produce anything but a date for their next meeting, to be held on Saturday.

In Pretoria last week, the parties to the civil war agreed on the need for peace but left the decision as to who would be eligible to run for president for Mbeki to decide.

Allowing Ouattara and others to participate in the presidential elections has been a key demand of the rebel movement. Ouattara was barred twice from presenting himself in previous elections on the grounds that he is not a full-blooded Ivorian.

A spokesman for Ouattara's Rally of the Republicans (RDR) party said Mbeki's ruling was key to resolving the conflict that split the country into a rebel-held north and a government-run south in September 2002.

"It is a very good decision that has been taken because the problem in Cote d'Ivoire is political and we needed a political solution," RDR spokesman Cisse Bacongo told IRIN.

"We hope that this will put and end to the misunderstandings that have led to this war.'

"Let's pray that President Gbagbo will quickly set out his recommendations so that elections can be held in October," he added.

However today's front page of the RDR newspaper Le Patriote was outright jubilant: 'The day of glory has arrived: ADO (as Ouattara is known) on his way to the presidential palace', it said.

The former ruling Democratic Party of Cote d'Ivoire (PDCI), whose leader, former president Henri Konan Bedie also signed the peace deal, applauded the decision as well, saying it was "necessary".

But secretary-general Alphonse Djedje Mady remained cautious. "We find this very positive," he said. "We were waiting for a political solution and that is what President Mbeki has taken. We hope that the Ivorian leaders will adhere to it."

Meanwhile in Bouake, calls for speedy progress on disarmament from Prime Minister Seydou Diarra and Mbeki's special envoy Sokupa Silumko appeared to go unheeded.

"Pretoria was a breakthrough," Silumko told participants. "We hope it dealt with obstackes that were blocking our way forward. Now we are expecting things from this meeting."

"The eyes of the world are on this meeting," he said in a message from Mbeki. "Decisions have already been made. This is execution time."

As the talks to draw up a timetable and framework for disarmament broke up, the South African envoy told IRIN that "by and large it went as well as could be expected. There was a lot of venom in Pretoria."

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.

In his letter to the signatories of the Pretoria accord, Mbeki was quoted as writing: "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."

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.

But diplomats fear that Mbeki's decision could be met with violence from pro-Gbagbo militia in Abidjan.

The disarmament meeting was 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.

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.


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