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Ivory Coast Rebels, "Patriots" Meet As Symbol of Unity

In Ivory Coast Saturday, rebels met with supporters of President Laurent Gbagbo to show they are united in backing a peace deal signed last month. The meeting, which took place in Abidjan, is the first of its kind since rebels and the army faced off in a conflict that has divided the nation since 2002. Kari Barber has more from VOA's West and Central Africa bureau in Dakar.

New Forces rebel Cisse Sindou, now a member of the cabinet of Prime Minister Guillaume Soro, the rebel leader, says the meeting is about looking forward. "One of the key words of the peace process - yesterday we were enemies, today we are all together to bring peace to the Ivory Coast. This is this picture we want everybody, at the national level and the international level, to see," he said.

Charles Ble Goude, leader of the Young Patriots, as the forces loyal to President Gbagbo are known, says the display of unity is important to instill confidence that the peace deal will last where other attempts have failed. "This is very, very important because a meeting between the loyalists and the rebels in the same stadium. For us, this is to show to the African world that there are no more rebels in this country, we are all brothers. In the past time we used to quarrel, but the quarrel is over," he said.

Prime Minister Soro and President Gbagbo took the first steps in the peace process, agreeing to share power and unify their military forces.

Ble Goude says what remains to be done is bridge the divide between north and south. In the civil war that began in 2002, rebels held the northern part of the country and government forces controlled the south. "The past is the past. The past is over. Now let us work for the future. No more Ivorians for the north, no more Ivorians for the south. Let us work for Africa, let us work for Cote D'Ivoire," he said.

Government spokesman Lambert Bahi says the new power-sharing government is happy to see the effects of the peace deal begin to take shape. "They want to want to work hand in hand in order to strengthen, to consolidate the peace process and I am very optimistic and everybody is," he said.

Earlier this week, authorities began dismantling the buffer zone, a U.N. and French-patrolled area that stretches across the country, dividing north from south.

The new government will also need to organize presidential elections, which have been delayed several times, and agree on a system to issue national identification papers.