TIEBISSOU, Ivory Coast, April 16 (Reuters) - Ivory Coast President Laurent Gbagbo said the dismantling of a military buffer zone on Monday underlined the war in the West African nation was over and that the country was being reunited.
"The country is being reunited, the war is over. Dear friends and compatriots, the war is over," Gbagbo said as he and Prime Minister Guillaume Soro, a former rebel leader, inspected the first joint parade of government and rebel forces since a 2002/2003 civil war split Ivory Coast in two.
After the parade in the capital Yamoussoukro, Gbagbo and Soro watched U.N. forces start pulling back from a buffer zone checkpoint at Tiebissou under a peace plan for the world's top cocoa producer that the men signed last month.
Under the March 4 plan, U.N. and French peacekeepers in the buffer zone will pull back in stages and be gradually replaced by mixed brigades of government and rebel soldiers.
Although fighting between the two sides ceased four years ago, the buffer zone had effectively marked the division between the rebel-held north and the government-held south, hindering transport and communication between the two halves.
At the order of the U.N. force commander, peacekeepers removed barbed wire and traffic cones from a U.N. checkpoint and Pakistani and Moroccan peacekeepers in their blue helmets withdrew aboard troop carriers.
A white U.N. bulldozer then razed the checkpoint's wooden cabin, drawing smiles from Gbagbo and Soro and applause from local people who interrupted their work farming in fields amid the lush tropical forest to line the road.
"Today all the barricades are lifted," Gbagbo said. "Go wherever you like in Ivory Coast. Ivory Coast is no longer divided."
Some voiced doubts about the departure of U.N. troops from the buffer zone, which has been plagued by increased violence and crime since the war began.
"I am not happy for the confidence zone to disappear because it protected us from insecurity," said Jean-Baptiste N'Goran, a hospital worker from a nearby village.
"(But) if the two sides in Ivory Coast deploy here together to ensure our security, in place of the French, that is good."
The peace plan, a home-grown deal which followed the failure of several internationally brokered accords, foresees the holding of elections by early next year after disarmament and national identity procedures are carried out.
Gbagbo said the buffer zone had been the biggest obstacle to polls being held.
"From today onwards, we have no more excuses not to organise elections. ... Mr Prime Minister, prepare the elections," the president said. He did not specify a date.
- Reuters - Thomson Reuters Foundation
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