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Security Concerns Arise as Ivory Coast Dismantles Buffer Zone


The Ivory Coast government has begun dismantling a buffer zone that has separated the rebel-held north from the government-run south since 2002. While some say this is an important step toward reconciling the nation, others worry that the move is premature because new security forces are not yet in place. Kari Barber reports from our West and Central Africa bureau in Dakar.

Eliminating the zone, which stretches 600 kilometers across the country and is patrolled by U.N. and French peacekeepers, is expected to take several weeks. An integrated force of President Laurent Gbagbo's troops and rebels are then to take over patrols of a diminished and freer zone while international peacekeepers draw down to an observation role.

Daniel Balint Kurti with London-based think-tank Chatham House traveled recently to Ivory Coast. He says villagers who lived near the buffer zone are nervous about the pullout. "You have some people whose villages were recently burned down and recently returned to their villages. They look at the U.N. and French peacekeepers as their protectors. Once they are gone they will be more afraid of falling victim to new attacks," he said.

Balint Kurti says the security handover will not be easy. "It is a process fraught with risks, but if things go right, there is a reason for optimism. What matters is what is seen on the ground," he said.

An adviser to President Gbagbo, Lambert Bahi, says concerns about security are something the power-sharing government of Mr. Gbagbo and rebel leader and new Prime Minister Guillaume Soro will have to deal with. "The question of insecurity has come into every country. The government will do the best it can to try to counter that, but it is not a major threat to the peace process - it is not, and it is not going to be," he said.

Bahi says security threats are not likely to originate from either the government or forces linked with Mr. Soro, but rather from ordinary bandits and criminals operating in the region. "Now what we need to beware of is that we have, like in any country, a lot of criminals who might want to take advantage. So you have regular security vigilance that needs to be exercised," he said.

Siratigue Konate, a spokesman for New Forces rebel movement, says while there are those who feel nervous about the dismantling, most people see it as a necessary step. "Some are suspicious, they do not really believe in the good will of one or the other side. They say at any moment the whole thing may collapse. These people are really few in number to those who are hopeful about this removal of the buffer zone," he said.

Konate says removing this barrier must come before the power-sharing government can begin overcoming other obstacles to full reunification, including organizing long-delayed presidential elections. Mr. Gbagbo has said elections will take place by the end of the year.

The country has been divided since an armed-rebel movement took hold in the north in 2002 after charges those living in the area were being treated like second-class citizens and denied national identification papers and voting rights. Efforts have been made to create a new system to grant identity papers but many were unsatisfied with the results and a new compromise may still need to be reached.

Government officials say Mr. Gbagbo and Mr. Soro will meet later this week to decide how to implement the steps of the peace accord they signed last month.

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