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Ivory Coast Rebels Reject South African Mediation

Northern Ivory Coast rebels are rejecting South Africa's mediation offer and calling on President Laurent Gbagbo to resign next month. Mr. Gbagbo says he will stay on until new elections take place. The statements follow a presentation by South Africa's mediation team at the U.N. Security Council on its stalled efforts to reunite Ivory Coast.

In a statement released from their stronghold of Bouake, the rebels say the South Africans' presentation is proof they have discredited and disqualified themselves.

Wednesday in New York, South Africa's defense minister blamed the Ivorian rebels for not disarming and allowing election preparations to proceed.

But in a telephone interview with VOA, rebel spokesman Sidiki Konate blames the lead mediator, South African President Thabo Mbeki, for the collapse of these efforts.

"For us, he is no longer a mediator, he is a partner of Mr. Gbagbo Laurent, and he is refusing to see the reality in Ivory Coast," he said. "He can no longer have our trust to lead this mediation. We do not see any way today to work with him."

Mr. Konate says South Africa's growing involvement in the Ivorian economy, including buying a local cell phone company, as well as a major bus and car dealership, points to a conflict of interest.

Rebels have also accused South Africa of selling arms to Mr. Gbagbo in violation of an arms embargo. That charge has been denied in both Abidjan and Pretoria.

Rebels are calling for the current African Union head, Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo, to take over.

They say Mr. Gbagbo has strayed too far from the latest South African mediated accord in establishing new laws on requirements for nationality and voting rights, as well as electoral procedures, making it impossible to have free and fair elections as scheduled on October 30.

Many northern Ivorians are currently excluded from the process.

Mr. Konate says the rebels, known as the Forces Nouvelles, will no longer recognize Mr. Gbagbo after his term in office reaches its mandated five years.

"From the 30th of October, Mr. Gbagbo is no more president of Ivory Coast, and the Forces Nouvelles, if Mr. Gbagbo tries by any means to stay in power, they will take their own responsibility," he added.

Speaking on U.N. radio in Abidjan late Wednesday, Mr. Gbagbo says the rebel and opposition fixation on this date is, in his words, childish.

He says he will stay in power until elections are held, even if this takes a few more months. He says he is working within the Ivorian constitution.

On this point, the text of the constitution is vague, saying an incumbent can stay in power beyond his mandate, but apparently only if an electoral process is already under way.

U.N. peacekeeping officials in Ivory Coast say they will now push for targeted sanctions against those found to be blocking the peace process, even though South Africa's mediation team has warned such sanctions could make the situation worse.

Tensions within Ivory Coast have been growing, with fears the three-year conflict could reignite into large-scale hostilities, including ethnically motivated violence led by militias.