UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs
COTE D IVOIRE: Military chiefs tentatively agree to start disarmament on 14 May
BOUAKE, 17 Apr 2005 (IRIN) - The government and rebels in Cote d'Ivoire tentatively agreed at the weekend that the long-delayed disarmament of rebel forces occupying the north of the country should take place between 14 May and 31 July.
Besides the rebels, about 4,000 soldiers recruited into the ranks of the government army since the conflict began in September 2002 will also be demobilised.
But the deal, thrashed out at talks between the military chiefs of the two sides in the rebel capital Bouake, remains subject to a series of conditionalities.
A joint communiqué issued after the talks ended on Saturday night said the proposed timetable for disarmament would be discussed further at a seminar at Yamoussoukro, the official capital of Cote d'Ivoire, between 2 and 6 May.
This four-day seminar will take place after a round of political consultations by President Laurent Gbagbo to decide whether or not to accept a proposal by South African mediator Thabo Mbeki that would allow Alassane Ouattara, an opposition leader supported by the rebels, to take part in presidential elections scheduled for October.
Ouattara, a former prime minister, was barred from standing against Gbagbo in the 2000 presidential election on the disputed grounds that his father was born in Burkina Faso.
The Yamoussoukro meeting will also take place as the UN Security Council considers whether to renew the mandate of 10,000 UN and French peacekeeping troops in Cote d'Ivoire.
Their previous mandate expired on 4 April and was extended by just one month to 4 May while the Security Council awaited the outcome of a three-day summit of the various Ivorian factions with Mbeki in Pretoria.
The talks in Pretoria ended with an agreement on 6 April to put the French-brokered Linas Marcoussis peace accord of January 2003 back on the rails.
But they failed to solve a dispute between Gbagbo and the rebels over how to enact the vital constitutional amendment which would allow Ouattara to stand in the October election.
Diplomats say this is still a bone of contention which could yet undermine the whole deal.
Gbagbo has not rejected the South African president's proposal that he use special powers granted to him by the constitution to promulgate the amendment, which has already been approved by parliament.
But neither has he accepted the mediator's recommendation.
Gbagbo has insisted until now that the constitutional amendment be approved by referendum, but it is impractical to hold such a vote while the country remains divided and the rebels have rejected such a move.
The government and rebels agreed in Bouake to take an immediate step to relieve the tension that has been growing between them in recent months.
The joint communiqué said both sides would start withdrawing their heavy weaponry from the frontline on 21 April to send "a strong signal" of their intentions to go ahead with the long-delayed disarmament process.
But further progress will depend on the Yamoussoukro meeting in two weeks time.
The communiqué said: "This seminar will determine, at the end of its work, the definitive timetable for carrying out the National Programme of Disarmament, Demobilisation and Rehabilitation,"
But it stressed that the agreement in principle to launch the disarmament process in mid-May remained subject to "financial and technical restraints and the demands of the Pretoria agreement,," hinting that it could suffer further delays.
Despite this cautious wording, the official rhetoric at the end of the Bouake talks, which began on Thursday, was upbeat.
Colonel Philippe Mangou, the chief of staff of Gbagbo's armed forces, and Colonel Soumaila Bakayoko, his counterpart in the rebel New Forces movement, both declared that the civil war, which broke out in September 2002, had now definitely ended.
It was the first time that the two men had met since the government air force launched three days of bombing raids on rebel positions in early November.
That violation of a two-year-old ceasefire was followed up by an attack by a pro-government militia group on the rebel frontline outpost of Logouale in western Cote d'Ivoire on 28 February.
In Abidjan, Charles Ble Goude, the leader of the militia-style Young Patriot pro-Gbagbo youth movement, and Alphonse Djedje Mady, the chairman of the G7 opposition alliance, both expressed satisfaction that new dates for the start and finish of disarmament had been set.
"Disarmament will be a very important step. If it actually happens it will reassure the whole world and Cote d'Ivoire," Ble Goude told IRIN.
But he cautioned: "We are going to wait until this decision on disarmament is actually carried out before expressing our joy, because this is not the first time that dates have been set for disarmament which have not been respected."
Speaking on behalf of the G7, which groups the rebels and the four main opposition parties in parliament, Djedje Mady said: "This is a happy decision.now this agreement must be intelligently managed. All the parties involved must create a climate of confidence so that we can make it to the elections in the time that is left. Confidence is fragile, but we cannot remain suspicious of each other forever. No sacrifice is too big for peace."
The Bouake talks hit a stumbling block on Thursday over rebel demands that Gbagbo disarm his own militias before rebel fighters started handing their guns under the terms of the DDR programme.
But this hitch appears to been overcome. The final communiqué said Prime Minister Seydou Diarra, an independent figure who heads Cote d'Ivoire's broad-based government of national reconciliation, would look after the disarming and dismantling of militia groups, as agreed in Pretoria.
Many of the rebels are tired of fighting and are looking forward to handing over their guns to UN peacekeepers.
Several hours before the Bouake communiqué announced a tentative deal on DDR, some rebel soldiers were already discussing over lunch what they would do with their resettlement allowance once they had been demobbed.
"I'm going to go back to mending lorries," said a soldier called 'Quassi' as he tucked into a mountain of chicken and rice, a Kalashnikov assault rifle on the table beside his plate.
"I'm tired of this. The money will be a cushion - I've promised to lend some to my brother to help him out with a business he wants to set up," he added.
Under the terms of the DDR programme, each former combatant will receive a cash payment of US $900 as part of a resettlement package that will also offer vocational training or a chance to pursue school or college studies.
However, others are reluctant to start celebrating just yet, unsure of what their role will be in peace time.
Many of the New Forces soldiers were part of the national army before the war and one of their motivations for staging the 2002 rebellion was a feeling that northerners were being marginalized in the armed forces as Gbagbo moved more and more southerners into key posts.
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