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Ivory Coast's Opposition Protests Extension of President's Mandate


Opposition militants in divided Ivory Coast are protesting a U.N. resolution extending the mandate of President Laurent Gbagbo. Ivory Coast soldiers and riot police fired warning shots to stop anti-government demonstrators leaving an Abidjan sports stadium from advancing towards the presidential palace.

Screaming "Gbagbo must go," hundreds of militants boarded buses in the Abobo opposition stronghold of Abidjan, including this young man, Assiamane.

"Today, we want to say that Mr. Laurent Gbagbo is not our president, so he has to go, because we are very tired," he said. "He gives us a lot of bad things, such as poverty, a lot of bad things."

The militants traveled by buses paid for by their opposition parties, and were allowed through Abidjan's many security checkpoints, where police and army could be seen taking bribes, which is commonplace.

At the stadium where the rally took place, in the neighborhood of Treichville, militants ran back and forth in front of Ivorian security, taunting them, and asking them not to kill them.

Marches are officially banned, but events inside stadiums are allowed. The official reason for the rally was to celebrate the qualification of the Ivory Coast national team for the World Cup, but that was on the mind of very few people.

One militant said, unlike football, there is no overtime in politics, and that Mr. Gbagbo should step down. His five-year mandate expires at the end of October, but a new U.N. resolution gives him up to one year to help organize rebel and militia disarmament, as well as new elections.

A new prime minister with extended powers must also be nominated, but African Union chairman Olusegun Obsanjo, who is expected to be the main mediator for the selection, has been mourning his wife, who recently died.

A woman at Sunday's rally said she was very disappointed by the U.N extension. "We don't want Gbagbo to be here for one day, for one month, for one year, we don't want Gbagbo to be here again," she said.

Republican Guard troops inside armored vehicles were stationed on the city's main bridges, closely watching traffic, while special security units wearing ski masks and hoods followed and stopped journalists, warning them not to move around too much.

In the rebel-occupied north, a rally against Mr. Gbagbo was also held, but without tension.

Supporters of Mr. Gbagbo, known as the Young Patriots, were planning their own rally in Abidjan, but decided to push it back until Tuesday to avoid possible run-ins with rivals.

Rebels have held on to more than half of Ivory Coast for more than three years. They say they are fighting to give more northerners the possibility to become full-fledged Ivorian citizens with the right to vote. Reforms to make this happen are included in peace deals, but have yet to be implemented.

The only time the opposition marched in the streets, in March 2004, security forces blocked roads, and went into opposition strongholds, killing more than 120 people. More than 10,000 U.N and French troops are in Ivory Coast, but despite their presence, sporadic violence has broken out, especially in the west of the country and in Abidjan.

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