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New Peace Deal Signed, Demobilization to Begin in Ivory Coast

Up until now, militias and rebels who fought in Ivory Coast's civil war have refused to put down their arms. But with the newest Ivorian peace deal, leaders hope disarmament efforts can soon begin to prevent ex-combatants, especially children, from joining other regional conflicts. Phuong Tran has more from VOA's regional bureau in Dakar.

The president of Ivory Coast's National Commission of Disarmament, Demobilization and Reinsertion, General Gaston Ouessenan, says he is hopeful his work will be easier now that President Laurent Gbagbo and New Forces rebel leader Guillaume Soro have shown political will to work with each other.

Ouessenan says he hopes the newest peace agreement will make disarmament a priority. He says it is urgent to collect weapons because ex-fighters in the Ivory Coast are a threat to regional stability.

The general says the risk of ex-fighters joining regional conflicts is great because strong ethnic ties among residents of different countries makes recruitment across national boundaries easy.

Special representative for the U.N. Office of West Africa, Ahmedou Ould-Abdallah, says Ivory Coast is a concern for all of West Africa because of former child soldiers who still have weapons.

Ould-Abdallah says when there are crises in the region, these child soldiers are easy to recruit because fighting in other conflicts can be profitable for them.

Child soldiers from Liberia's civil wars, which first began in 1989, have told human-rights organizations they were offered money, rice and clothing to fight in the Ivory Coast.

Having just returned from Guinea, Ould-Abdallah says the movement of child soldiers from one country to another is difficult to prove, but widely accepted.

He says it is possible youth who protested against President Lansana Conte's regime this past month came from other countries in West Africa.

Protests in Guinea since the beginning of the year have led to more than 100 deaths.

The Ivorian commission in charge of disarmament says it has begun enrolling one-thousand of the estimated three-thousand Ivorian youth associated with fighting into social programs.

Ouessenan says these programs are critical for national and regional peace.

He says weapons have become a symbol to youth of power, of sovereignty, but also of money for food. He adds that in order to be able to convince them to put down their arms, the government needs to show the youth other ways to earn a living.

The United Nations estimates there are more than 300,000 child soldiers worldwide.

Ouessenan, the leader of Ivory Coast's disarmament efforts, did not give a timeline for disarmament.