PRETORIA, 29 June (IRIN) - The main political factions in Cote d'Ivoire agreed on Wednesday to kick-start a much-delayed process of disarmament and reaffirmed a commitment to hold presidential elections on 30 October.
The decisions were announced in a joint statement following two days of talks in Pretoria chaired by South African President Thabo Mbeki in his role as African Union mediator in the three-year-old Ivorian conflict.
The statement, signed by President Laurent Gbagbo, rebel leader Guillaume Soro and the leaders of the two main parliamentary opposition parties, said the disarmament of pro-Gbagbo militia forces in the government-controlled south of the country, would begin immediately and end by 20 August.
Although a ceremony was held in the western town of Guiglo on 25 May to mark the start of disarmament by these shadowy militia groups, the declaration noted that "the actual disarmament and dismantling of the militia has not yet commenced." The rebels were refusing to hand in their weapons until the militias began disarming.
The statement said government and rebel military chiefs would meet again on 7 July to finalise a timetable for disarming the 42,000 rebel fighters who control the north of Cote d'Ivoire. These would start handing in their weapons to UN peacekeepers at special cantonment sites by the end of July, it added.
Rebel ministers would meanwhile return to full participation in Cote d'Ivoire's broad-based government of national reconciliation immediately.
Mbeki described the agreement to breathe new life into the flagging peace process as an "historical occasion."
"The agreement reflects the determination of all the leaders present here," he stressed.
The declaration recognised that the rebels had failed to respect earlier deadlines established for starting disarmament because of delays in implementing agreed political reforms. It stated specifically that these two processes had to go hand in hand.
"It was agreed that the intake of combatants should start as from the end of July 2005, recognising the linkage with the decision to amend the Nationality and Identity laws," the document said.
It set a deadline of 15 July for parliament in Abidjan to adopt seven laws proposed by the South African mediation team.
These relate to the reform of the Independent Electoral Commission, the financing of political parties, the right to Ivorian nationality, the issue of national identity documents, and the establishment of a human rights commission and the regulation of newspapers, radio and television.
Gbagbo's Ivorian Popular Front (FPI) party has so far delayed the passage of several of these laws through parliament. The statement said that if the legislature failed to pass them within the next two weeks, Mbeki, in his capacity as mediator, would be authorised to instruct Gbagbo to ensure the passage of the necessary legal amendments by issuing special decrees and orders.
Although diplomats have increasingly questioned the feasibility of reuniting the West African country and organising credible presidential elections in just four months, all those present at the Pretoria summit reiterated that the ballot should take place on schedule.
"They reaffirmed the importance of moving speedily with the removal of all obstacles to the holding of presidential elections in October 2005," it said.
In preparation of the elections, Gbagbo has angered the rebels and their allies in the parliamentary opposition parties by putting the National Statistics Institute in charge of drawing up a new electoral register, rather than the Independent Electoral Commission.
The Pretoria summit confirmed that the statistics institute, which is controlled by the government, would continue to handle this process. But the meeting specified that it would only do so under the direct control of the electoral commission, where the opposition parties and rebels will also be represented.
The meeting in the South African capital has been dubbed "Pretoria Two" by the Ivorian media.
It was called by Mbeki to speed up progress towards disarmament, national reunification and elections, following delays in the implementation of several key measures agreed at a first summit in Pretoria that ended on 6 April.
Besides Gbagbo and Soro, the summit was attended by Prime Minister Seydou Diarra, former president Henri Konan Bedie, the leader of the Democratic Party of Cote d'Ivoire (PDCI), the largest opposition party in parliament, and former prime minister Alassane Ouattara, the leader of the Rally of the Republicans (RDR) opposition party, which commands strong support in the rebel-held north.
Ouattara, who intends to challenge Gbagbo in the presidential election, said holding the ballot in October would be "tight, but possible."
"I do think this time implementation should not be a problem," he told reporters. "I think we will move forward again. We have all agreed to the imposition of sanctions, which shows we are committed to the peace process."
The Pretoria Two communique ended by recommending that the African Union and the UN Security Council "impose appropriate sanctions against those parties who fail to implement the Pretoria agreements and block the peace process."
UN Security Council resolution 1572 of 15 November 2004, authorised the Secretary General to impose a travel ban and asset freeze on key individuals identified as blocking the peace process. The United Nations subsequently drew up a confidential list of possible targets for such sanctions, but they have not so far been applied.
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