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Ex-Ivorian Military Leader Rejects Responsibility For Violence - 2001-11-26

Ivory Coast's former military ruler, General Robert Guei has denied all responsibility for violence committed by his soldiers following last year's presidential elections in the West African country.

General Robert Guei addressed a forum on national reconciliation, a meeting that has brought together political, civic and religious leaders hoping to put an end to a political crisis that has been festering in the country for two years.

The general, who led Ivory Coast's first ever military coup in 1999, had largely stayed out of the public eye since last year after he was driven out of power amid a popular uprising that left hundreds of people dead. Many of the victims died at the hands of General Guei's soldiers, who fired at demonstrators on the streets of Abidjan.

In an hour-long speech carried on national television Monday, the former military ruler denied ever ordering soldiers to shoot civilians.

The general also offered an explanation of why he tried to remain in power after promising at the time of the coup that he would serve only as a transition leader.

"Robert Guei is not in his essence a coup leader. Robert Guei is a patriot," the general said, speaking of himself. "He happened to find himself in the middle of events that marked our country's history at the end of the century. Robert Guei is a citizen who can exercise his civic rights. That is why he presented himself as a candidate for the year 2000 presidential elections."

The general angered the international community when he announced he would run for president, presenting himself as a civilian candidate. Following the election in October of 2000, General Guei stopped the vote counting and tried to declare himself the winner when he discovered he had lost the poll.

When demonstrators took the streets to protest, General Guei's soldiers opened fire on them, unleashing a wave of violence that lasted several days. The general fled to his native village in western Ivory Coast, and had not made a public appearance in Abidjan since.

General Guei had at first refused to attend the ongoing forum. He finally agreed to attend after placing a number of conditions which included a demand that he be formally recognized as a former head of state.

The forum, which has gone for several weeks, has also included former President Henri Konan Bedie, who was ousted in the 1999 coup.

The gathering has failed to draw the participation of the man many consider to be at the heart of Ivory Coast's political impasse: opposition leader Alassane Ouattara.

The Supreme Court, under the Guei government, disqualified Mr. Ouattara from running for president in last year's election, based on doubts whether Mr. Ouattara is of full Ivorian nationality.

Tensions have persisted. Mr. Ouattara's supporters have vowed to continue to push for new presidential elections, threatening to prolong the political crisis that the reconciliation forum aims to end.