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Ivory Coast Holds Reconciliation Forum - 2001-11-14


In Ivory Coast, the current and former presidents addressed a National Reconciliation Forum convened to help end two years of social and political turmoil in the West African country. The two men had very different perspectives on the country's first-ever military coup and how Ivorians have coped. Ivory Coast's political crisis began two years ago when General Robert Guei led the country's first military coup, forcing then-president Henri Konan Bedie into exile. Mr. Bedie, General Guei, and the country's other leading political figures were invited to speak at the National Reconciliation Forum, a two-month conference aimed at ending the turmoil.

It was the second major public appearance for Mr. Bedie, since he returned from exile in Paris last month. Still visibly angry over his ouster, the former president denounced what he called the coup's disastrous consequences for Ivory Coast. "The 1999 coup, the lies that were spread about my government, a democratically elected president being forced into exile, all these factors have helped create deep fault lines within the national community," he said. Mr. Bedie was president between 1993 and 1999. He rejected claims he brought about the coup by fostering tensions between mostly Muslim ethnic Dioulas, and predominantly Christian southerners, who belong to other ethnic groups.

President Laurent Gbagbo also spoke to the forum. He took over the highest office one year ago, after a popular uprising forced General Guei out of office when he refused to recognize Mr. Gbagbo's victory in presidential elections. Looking resolute, yet drawing frequent laughter from his audience with one-liners, Mr. Gbagbo took credit for forcing General Guei to leave power one year ago. He said the revolt's legacy would live on. "Those who would take power by force rather than through the ballot will not succeed because the people have now earned their battle scars and learned to fight," said Mr. Gbagbo.

The uprising against General Guei was followed by one of the worst periods of political violence in Ivory Coast's history. More than 300 people died in street clashes between supporters of Mr. Gbagbo and ethnic Dioulas angry that their candidate, Alassane Ouattara, had not been allowed to run for president.

Mr. Ouattara rejects a court ruling that he may not seek the highest office because he allegedly is of foreign stock. On Monday, his supporters announced he would not attend Tuesday's session of the forum for that reason.

General Guei also chose not to attend. He made speaking at the forum dependent upon legal privileges for him and the soldiers who followed him into internal exile one year ago.

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