ABIDJAN, April 27 (Reuters) - In an Ivory Coast split by war five years ago, former foes once at each other's throats are dancing together and freeing doves in a celebration of peace.
But the party may be premature unless the unity government formed after a March 4 peace deal can resolve the explosive issues of disarmament and identification that have mined the path to long-delayed elections in the West African state.
At a recent rally in Abidjan, onlookers watched in disbelief as the influential wife of President Laurent Gbagbo, Simone, waltzed with Sidiki Konate, spokesman for the New Forces rebels who seized the north of Ivory Coast in a brief 2002-2003 war.
"What brings us here ... is the building of peace," Konate, now a minister in the new government, told a crowd of mostly pro-Gbagbo "Young Patriots" who would probably have tried to lynch the prominent rebel just a few months ago.
After years of deadlock and failed peace deals, the March 4 accord signed by Gbagbo with New Forces leader Guillaume Soro, now his prime minister, has moved quickly to spread a soothing message of reconciliation across the world's top cocoa producer.
National elections are foreseen within a year.
U.N. peacekeepers have begun dismantling a buffer zone that bisects the former French colony. Some banks have reopened in the rebel-held north and thousands of civil servants are due to return to their jobs there soon.
French investors have flown into the economic capital Abidjan, keen to revive trade hit by the war.
The World Bank last week promised Ivory Coast $100 million for disarmament of ex-combatants, resuming ties cut when the government halted loan repayments in 2004.
But some question whether the reconciliation is real.
"Everything is happening so quickly that it's difficult to understand anything ... After five years of war, the question we're asking in the north is what we've won," said Mamadou, 37, an electrician in the northern rebel stronghold of Bouake.
Predicting Gbagbo would easily win re-election in the polls, in which Soro will not stand, he added: "Soro is putting his political career on the line. I hope he's not simply selling away our struggle".
GIVING UP THE GUNS
As leader of the rebels, Soro championed the cause of mainly Muslim northerners who had long complained they were treated like foreigners by Christians in the south. They say government forces have torn up thousands of their Ivorian ID cards.
These ethnic and religious faultlines were at the heart of the civil war that rent the once prosperous country in two.
Disarming rival militias and providing identity cards for prospective voters -- both highly sensitive issues -- will be an acid test for the newly minted peace accord.
"Until we attain more progress on disarmament and identification than has been achieved in previous peace agreements, celebrations are premature," Dustin Sharp, a researcher for U.S.-based Human Rights Watch, told Reuters.
An identification scheme that set out to deliver ID papers to around 3.5 million Ivorians who have none stalled last year amid violent protests by Gbagbo supporters who said it would enable opposition-supporting immigrants to vote.
Before turning in their weapons, thousands of rebel ex-combatants roaming the north will want assurances they will have roles, and salaries, in a new integrated national army.
Some may wonder what they have to gain by disarming at all, as this will end the political and economic status they gained at gunpoint across the north.
Pro-Gbagbo militias who fought alongside government forces during the civil war are demanding cash settlements and civilian jobs. They have already missed an April deadline to disarm
"The hardest work is yet to come," Sharp said
But for now, the language of peace prevails, even in the country's normally fiercely partisan newspapers.
"It's better than before. People have fewer violent, angry words," said student Joseph Liade, 19, glancing over the headlines at a roadside press stand in Abidjan. (Additional reporting by Ange Aboa in Abidjan and Salim Bamba in Bouake)
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