Côte d'Ivoire

Cote d'Ivoire: As deadlines loom, Mbeki calls another summit to try to salvage peace process

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DAKAR, 20 June (IRIN) - With the peace process in Cote d'Ivoire wobbling again, and the much-postponed deadline for disarmament to begin just one week away, international mediator and South African president Thabo Mbeki has called the warring factions to a new summit.

"The president proposed the 25th and 26th (of June) as the dates but all the parties can't make it. Therefore arrangements are being made to find another suitable date," Mbeki's spokesman Bheki Khumalo was quoted as saying by Agence France Presse.

Mbeki was mandated by the African Union last November to broker a deal to end the crisis in the world's top cocoa grower, which has been split into a government-run south and a rebel-held north for almost three years.

In April, he managed to hammer out a new accord between Ivorian President Laurent Gbagbo and opposition and rebel leaders in the South African capital Pretoria, which revived hopes that elections would be held on schedule in October.

However, before polls can be organised, disarmament has to begin. The initial deadline set out after the Pretoria talks was 14 May but that date came and went without a single weapon being turned in.

Now the process is finally supposed to get underway on 27 June but that target is looking in doubt after an explosion of ethnic violence in the volatile so-called Wild West, and a speech by Gbagbo over the weekend that has raised rebel hackles.

More than 100 people were shot, hacked or burned to death near the western government-held town of Duekoue at the start of the month and some 15,000 people fled their homes fearing more attacks. The government and rebel camps each blamed the other for sparking the attacks.

It was the second violent flare-up in the area in as many months and in a televised speech to the nation on Friday night, Gbagbo pledged new measures to prevent more trouble erupting.

Chief among them was the appointment of a military governor for the west of the country who would be based in Duekoue, and the installation of military prefects in the other main towns of the cocoa-rich belt.

"I cannot let insecurity compromise the electoral process," Gbagbo said in his speech. "The only way out of this crisis for us is to have elections."

The president also said that the de facto capital Abidjan would be split into five zones, that would each have its own unit of rapid intervention forces. Residents with security problems would be able to call these teams of soldiers and military police at any time of day or night, he said.

But rebels said the speech was further evidence that Gbagbo was bent on military solutions to the problem.

"For us, this speech is dangerous for peace. It's a military speech which aims to put a military regime in place," Sidiki Konate, spokesman for the rebel New Forces, told IRIN on Monday.

Asked whether disarmament would go ahead as scheduled in seven days time, Konate was pessimistic.

"First of all that was not a date fixed by us, and secondly you can't skip the start of the process and begin at the end," he said. "What should have been done by the 27th has not been done yet. Laws have not been voted through and pro-Gbagbo militias have not been disarmed and dismantled."

The disarmament of pro-government militias began at the end of May with four groups handing in a token Kalashnikov rifle to Philippe Mangou, the chief of staff of the armed forces. But not long before the violence erupted in Duekoue, his spokesman Jules Yao Yao told reporters that not as many weapons as expected had been turned over.

Mbeki's main task at the Pretoria II summit, whenever it is held, will be trying to persuade both sides to overcome their mutual distrust and keep preparations for the October elections on track.

If elections are not held, Gbagbo has already announced that he will stay in power, which is something the opposition is unlikely to stomach.

Since the first summit in the South African capital two months ago, there has been some concrete progress.

Gbagbo announced elections would be on 30 October and also agreed to let his main rival Alassane Ouattara stand against him at the ballot box.

Ouattara's exclusion from polls in 2000 on the disputed grounds that one of his parents was not Ivorian is seen as one of root causes of the rebels' failed attempt to topple Gbagbo back in September 2002 that set the crisis rolling.

But critics say there have been other moves that are less conducive to moving ahead to free and fair elections.

For example, Gbagbo has ordered the National Statistics Institute (INS) to start compiling electoral lists and sorting out voter cards, but some say voter registration should be carried out by the Independent Electoral Commission (CEI). The INS, critics allege, is headed by a close Gbagbo ally and impartiality cannot be guaranteed.

[ENDS]

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