BOUAKE, June 9 (Reuters) - The leader of Ivory Coast's Young Patriots movement, notorious for its violent support for President Laurent Gbagbo, visited the country's rebel-held north on Saturday for the first time since a 2002-2003 civil war.
Charles Ble Goude's trip to the rebel stronghold of Bouake was the latest conciliatory gesture by the former foes since a March peace deal between Gbagbo and rebel leader Guillaume Soro set a roadmap to reunification and elections.
"We're making peace to restore liberty in Ivory Coast. Being in Bouake today is a symbol of peace," he told a crowd of several hundred people, dressed in his trademark baseball cap and T-shirt. "The time has come to make peace."
The Young Patriots frequently took to the streets in economic capital Abidjan and other towns in the tense years following the fighting in the world's top cocoa grower, blocking roads and stoning U.N. and French peacekeepers' bases.
Ble Goude, currently under a U.N. travel ban, orchestrated days of rioting in November 2004 after French peacekeepers destroyed the Ivorian air force fleet in retaliation for a government air strike on their Bouake base that killed 9 troops.
More than 8,000 mainly French expatriates fled the country, many plucked from rooftops by French army helicopters.
Ivory Coast's streets have been unusually trouble-free this year and observers have been surprised how suddenly tensions have dissipated -- some speculating that Gbagbo may have "bought" Soro, now prime minister, to end the standoff.
There have been several symbolic peace gestures by the former foes since the deal, but some Ivorians worry there has been little real progress on key steps including disarmament and organisation of elections repeatedly postponed since 2005.
While many Bouake residents welcomed the youth leader's visit as a sign of progress in a peace process which had been deadlocked for several years despite foreign mediation, painter Lacina Toure refused to turn out to watch.
"Ble Goude is visiting us like a prince. (He's) preaching peace to attract the attention of the U.N. so his sanctions will be lifted," he said.
People in Abidjan also turned out in a festival atmosphere on Saturday to celebrate the presence of Didier Drogba, captain of the national soccer team and striker for English soccer club Chelsea, after he was named African footballer of the year in March.
"Everyone should be optimistic," Drogba told reporters on Friday at a celebration for the national team at the U.S. Embassy. "We need to be conscious of the fact that we can get out of this crisis and that's all."
- Reuters - Thomson Reuters Foundation
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