Militias in the government-controlled part of divided Ivory Coast have symbolically started handing in their weapons, but northern based rebels remain skeptical about the disarmament program. The process is supposed to be completed before elections later this year.
Several hundred kilometers from the commercial capital, Abidjan, in the western city of Guiglo, the heads of four militia groups supporting President Laurent Gbagbo handed over AK-47s to the Ivory Coast military, Wednesday.
Behind the militia leaders stood several units of rank and file members dressed in civilian clothes.
The head of one of these units, Commandant Batoua, said it was important to show militias were complying with the South African-led mediation effort to reunite Ivory Coast. He said militias had taken up their struggle to help the army prevent the rebels from taking over the entire country.
He also warned if rebels don't disarm, militias will be quick to regroup.
One civilian watching the ceremony, Keba Mousio, said it was a day of hope. He said western Ivory Coast, which is in government hands, is awash with weapons because of all these militias. He said disarmament is good for the region.
There are an estimated 5,000 militia members in the western region, who also man roadblocks and harass citizens, especially those from the north. The militias favor President Laurent Gbagbo who is from the southern ethnic Bete group. They also have close ties with Liberian rebel groups that helped topple former Liberian leader Charles Taylor.
Ivorian army officials said Wednesday's ceremony was symbolic and not part of the formal disarmament process which is due to start at the end of June.
Rebel spokesman Sidiki Konate in an interview with VOA called the ceremony a "masquerade," and said he doesn't believe the militias will really give up their arms before the October election.
"We think we have to have doubts about this operation because for a few days we hear that a lot of young militiamen go away with their weapons," said Mr. Konate. "The militias belong to Mr. Gbagbo Laurent and he created these militias to use them for the elections. We have to have a deep security plan for the whole west of this country from Guiglo to the border of Liberia and after we can be sure that the militia who went yesterday or the day before to Liberia will not come [back] tomorrow morning."
The northern rebels are reluctant to start disarmament even though President Gbagbo has met their key demand and allowed northern opposition leader Alassane Ouattara to run in the presidential election. They say they want to make sure the election itself is free and fair.