Côte d'Ivoire

Côte d'Ivoire: Rebels to disarm just ahead of October poll

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YAMOUSSOUKRO, 11 Jul 2005 (IRIN) - The warring factions in Cote d'Ivoire have agreed a new timetable for disarmament that provides for rebel fighters to surrender their guns just four weeks before presidential elections due in October.

The rebels have failed to honour a string of earlier agreements to hand in their weapons, citing the failure of President Laurent Gbagbo to implement a series of agreed political reforms.

But the latest accord, hammered out by government and rebel military commanders on Saturday, provides for the rebels to surrender their guns to UN peacekeepers between 26 September and 3 October.

Presidential elections to set the seal on a deal to end three years of civil war are due to take place just four weeks later on 30 October.

The new agreement on disarmament, negotiated at three days of talks in the official capital Yamoussoukro, calls for 40,500 rebel combatants and 15,000 government troops to start assembling at agreed cantonment sites on 31 July.

But they will only surrender their guns to the 6,000-strong UN peacekeeping force in Cote d'Ivoire two months later.

The Yamoussoukro agreement also demands that pro-government militias in the south of Cote d'Ivoire disarm first and that President Gbagbo sign a series of delayed political reforms into law by 15 July - next Friday.

The rebels' political leadership endorsed the agreement on Monday.

"The New Forces welcome the disarmament accord just signed," Amadou Kone, a top aide to rebel leader Guillaume Soro, said in a statement. "They reaffirm their commitment to its terms."

Cote d'Ivoire, which was once the economic powerhouse of Francophone West Africa, split into a rebel-held north and a loyalist south after a failed coup in September 2002 plunged the country into civil war.

Saturday's disarmament deal, signed by General Philippe Mangou, the chief of staff of Gbagbo's armed forces and Colonel Soumaila Bakayoko, the rebel military commander, says that once disarmament has been completed on 3 October, work will start on building a new army for a unified Cote d'Ivoire.

But before the rebels start handing in their guns, several thousand pro-government militias must be disarmed and disbanded by 20 August.

This is in line with the latest peace agreement brokered in Pretoria on 26 June by international mediator and South African President Thabo Mbeki.

Likewise the disarmament calendar reiterates the Pretoria deadline of 15 July for the adoption of new laws setting up an independent electoral commission and setting out new rules for granting Ivorian nationality.

The rebels failed to meet several earlier deadlines to hand in their weapons, citing Gbagbo's delay in implementing reforms to give four million immigrants from other West African countries greater rights to own land and to take out Ivorian nationality.

"For the New Forces, the timeline signed in Yamoussoukro is satisfactory because it takes into account all of our concerns," Kone said.

The coordinator of Cote d'Ivoire's Disarmament, Demobilisation and Reintegration (DDR) programme, Alain Richard Donwahi, described the Yamoussoukro accord as a breakthrough.

"It is the first time that chiefs of staff from both sides have agreed on the entire DDR process," he told Radio France Internationale.

But after three years of broken ceasefires, failed peace accords and disarmament delays, Donwahi sounded a note of caution.

"We cannot crow over our victory as the road is still long and it may be lined by obstacles. But we will work to ensure that what was signed is respected," he said.

Speaking for the New Forces rebel movement, Kone stressed that the deadlines set by the latest disarmament calendar "are extremely tight."

"In consequence we urge all parties to respect the commitments," he said.

Kone urged the UN Security Council to guard against bids to destabilise the peace process by groups operating in neighbouring countries, notably in Liberia and in Guinea.

In a separate development, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Louise Arbour said she was extremely concerned about the reign of terror in the volatile west of the country and the absence of the rule of law in the rebel-held north.

More than 100 people were shot, hacked and burned to death last month in a round of tit-for-tat ethnic killings just outside the government-held frontline town of Duekoue in western Cote d'Ivoire.

Speaking at the end of a four-day visit to Cote d'Ivoire, Arbour noted that these attacks took place just a few hundred metres away from an Ivorian army post.

Speaking at a press conference in the main city Abidjan on Saturday, she said the local population in Duekoue had "very little confidence in the government's capacity to offer them efficient protection."

"I can only deplore this very worrying deterioration of human rights," Arbour added.

She also expressed concern about President Gbagbo's decision to reinforce military rule in the west.

Gbagbo last week announced he was sending 800 extra troops to the region, which he has placed under military rule.

The president also said he would clamp down on violent crime in Abidjan by reinforcing the security forces there with 1,700 men tasked with improving law-and-order.

[ENDS]

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