Côte d'Ivoire

Côte d'Ivoire: Rebels deny they pledged to disarm later this month

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ABIDJAN, 13 Jun 2005 (IRIN) - Plans to start disarming Cote d'Ivoire's warring parties in two weeks time looked shaky on Monday as the rebels denied signing any commitment to begin the process on 27 June and accused President Laurent Gbagbo of planning to rekindle the country's civil war.

"We never committed ourselves to a disarmament date," Amadou Kone, a top aide of New Forces rebel leader Guillaume Soro, said.

Kone said the rebels, who control the northern half of the West African country, believed that Gbagbo was planning an offensive that would re-ignite the almost three-year-long conflict.

"We have certain information which shows that President Gbagbo is preparing to resume hostilities. His recent trip to Angola did not take place by chance," Kone told a press conference at a heavily guarded hotel used by rebel officials in the capital Abidjan.

Diplomats say Angola has supplied Gbagbo's government with arms in the past.

Under a new peace process brokered by South African President Thabo Mbeki, disarmament was to pave the way for reunification of the country and the holding of presidential elections on 30 October.

However, the rebels missed the initial deadline for them to start handing in their weapons on 14 May and a fresh target date of 27 June was set by government and rebel military commanders at a series of meetings last month.

However, peace-building efforts have since been undermined by a series of savage tit-for-tat killings near the frontline.

An outbreak of ethnic conflict near the government-held town of Duekoue in the volatile west of Cote d'Ivoire, has left at least 69 people dead since the start of this month. According to the United Nations, 15,000 villagers in the district have fled their homes, fearing further attacks.

Pro-Gbagbo politicians have blamed the rebels for starting the bloodbath, but Kone hinted that pro-government militia groups were behind the violence.

"We cannot disarm while there is so much insecurity and as long as the militias have not been disarmed," he said.

Cote d'Ivoire's fertile western cocoa-producing regions are awash with weapons and harbour several thousand pro-government militia fighters. Diplomats and visitors to the region believe that some of these gunmen have been brought in from nearby Liberia.

Kone said it would be suicide for the rebels to disarm without solid guarantees that Gbagbo would keep his side of the peace agreement. "If we no longer have a means of applying pressure on Gbagbo and we disarm he will not keep his promises," he said.

The rebels said at Monday's news conference that they wanted more political reforms to be adopted by parliament and further guarantees that the elections would be fair before they laid down their weapons.

But an aide of President Gbagbo reacted by accusing the rebels of simply seeking a fresh excuse to hang on to their guns.

"They say this because they do not want to disarm," said Sylvere Nebout, the president's communications advisor said.

Cote d'Ivoire has been split into a government-controlled south and a rebel-held north -- with some 6,000 UN and 4,000 French peacekeepers currently patrolling the buffer zone in between -- since the rebels tried to topple Gbagbo in September 2002.

Many combatants in the civil war - 42,000 rebels and 5,000 new recruits to the loyalist army - will be eligible for a resettlement grant of 500,000 CFA francs (US $960) if and when the disarmament process finally gets under way.

Some rebel fighters, including several hundred who formerly served in the police and army, will be reintegrated into the government security forces.

The 10,000-strong international peacekeeping force is hoping to get reinforcements soon to help it undertake the disarmament process and maintain security during the run-up to elections.

The Security Council last week voted to extend the mandate of the ONUCI peacekeeping mission by just three weeks until June 24.

After that it plans to adopt a second resolution approving extra troops and prolonging the mandate of the peacekeeping force for a further seven months.

It was the third time the Security Council had delayed approving UN troop reinforcements for Cote d'Ivoire in as many months.

Diplomats said the latest postponement was prompted by the fact that the U.S. Congress had yet to clear the funds to pay for extra peacekeepers. Washington pays about a quarter of the UN peacekeeping budget and U.S. lawmakers have demanded an advance say in all UN troop deployments to control costs.

Jean-Marc de La Sabliere, the French ambassador to the UN, said the UN Operation in Cote d'Ivoire (ONUCI) would be reinforced by some 1,200 extra personnel, falling short of a request by the UN special representative in the country, Pierre Schori, for a further 2,000.

[ENDS]

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