GUIGLO, May 19 (Reuters) - Burning a small pile of rusty rifles and machine guns, militias which backed the government in Ivory Coast's 2002-2003 civil war completed their disarmament on Saturday, taking the country one step closer to reunification.
The civilian combatants fought in some of the fiercest battles of the conflict, in which the rebels seized the north of the world's top cocoa grower. They are feared by locals in the far-western town of Guiglo which they have controlled since.
"Thanks to you who took up arms to defend your fields and your villages," President Laurent Gbagbo told the groups at a ceremony in Guiglo supposedly marking the end of the hastily conducted disarmament. "We have 1,027 weapons."
Brandishing a flaming torch, interim head of the United Nations peacekeeping mission Abou Moussa set light to a symbolic pile of guns thrown into a pit and covered with wood and straw. Onlookers cheered, shouting the country's conflict was now over.
Ivory Coast's peace process foundered for more than four years as politicians squabbled but has made strides forward since March when Gbagbo and rebel leader Guillaume Soro signed a home-grown peace pact after foreign-brokered accords failed.
Gbagbo subsequently named the rebel chief as his prime minister.
The agreement foresees disarmament of all combatants on both rebel and government sides and the formation of a new army as well as reunification and the organisation of long-delayed elections that were supposed to take place in 2005.
"NO MORE REASON TO EXIST"
Denis Maho Glofiei, head of the Great West Liberation Front (FLGO), one of the four militia groups, said they were disarming in support of the latest peace efforts.
"We've realised that since the signing of the ... peace deal, we have no more reason to exist. Anyone possessing an arm from today does so illegally and not in the name of the FLGO," he said, after handing a machine gun and rifle to Gbagbo.
Mechanic Lacine Kone from Guiglo said he was grateful for the part the militias played in the conflict but was glad to see them go. Some locals say they are violent towards residents.
"They helped us but after that they started to mistreat us civilians so if they're going now to enable peace, that's good," he said as robed village elders and guests took their seats at the ceremony under tarpaulins to shade them from the sun.
Disarming of the militia groups which have previously claimed to have 10,000 members, has long been a major obstacle to peace and the New Forces rebels have maintained they would not turn in their own guns until they were gone.
The sudden start to their disarmament, which defence adviser Kadet has overseen with the groups' leaders this week, contrasts with the fanfare of a failed attempt last August to disband them with offers of cash, job training and medical care.
U.N. officials at the ceremony told reporters more weapons would be rounded up over the next fortnight while the head of the national disarmament programme, General Ouassenan Kone, said reintegration support was being offered to the ex-combatants.
- Reuters - Thomson Reuters Foundation
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