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Absences Hinder Ivory Coast Reconciliation Forum - 2001-11-13

Ivory Coast's National Reconciliation Forum began a month ago, but many Ivorians believe the absence of two political figures that played major roles in last year's unrest has weakened the gathering's chances of success. Now, two other important politicians, President Laurent Gbagbo and former President Henri Konan Bedie, are to speak at the Forum that aims to overcome two years of social and political instability in Ivory Coast.

When the forum opened on October 9, many Ivorians hoped it would help Ivory Coast reclaim its status as one of the most stable nations in West Africa.

At least 300 people died in civil and ethnic unrest late last year, after a popular uprising forced coup leader General Robert Guei to flee the presidency. General Guei had tried to declare himself the winner of presidential elections, despite a victory by Mr. Gbagbo.

General Guei had seized power a year earlier in the country's first military coup.

Street battles erupted after General Guei's ouster. They pit supporters of former Prime Minister Alassane Ouattara, who are mostly Muslim northerners of the ethnic Dioula group, against Christian southerners of other ethnicities who support Mr. Gbagbo.

The decision by both General Guei and Mr. Ouattara not to attend the forum has disappointed many Ivorians.

Mr. Ouattara says he will not attend the forum until authorities repeal a court order barring him from running for office because of questions about his nationality. Mr. Ouattara denies the court's ruling that he is of foreign origin.

Meanwhile, General Guei says he wants extensive legal privileges for himself and for the soldiers who accompanied him into internal exile when he was ousted.

Demashubeth Demalo, a computer technician, thinks the forum has lost most of its interest with the absence of the two key political figures. It has been a failure, Mr. Demalo says, since Mr. Ouattara and his former rival Robert Guei have not come to that event. He says their absence "has turned the forum into a political masquerade."

But the participation of President Gbagbo and former president Henri Konan Bedie, who recently returned from exile, gives security guard Mohammed Yorro hope the two-month conference will prove successful.

The forum is a good thing, Mr. Yorro says. He believes the presence of political leaders like Mr. Bedie and Mr. Gbagbo will help the country reconcile and heal. But Mr. Yorro also says it would be better if all the country's major political figures were attending.

The National Reconciliation Forum is scheduled to end in one month.