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Ivory Coast  Police Crack Down on Anti-Rebel Protesters - 2003-03-29

Police in Ivory Coast have fired tear gas on demonstrators who were trying to protest what they say were atrocities committed by rebels in the west of the country.

Hundreds gathered for what they had said would be a peaceful demonstration in Ivory Coast's main city.

The demonstrators, mostly government supporters, said they wanted to denounce what they say is the killing, rape, and torture of the We people of western Ivory Coast by Ivorian rebels who have been operating with the help of Liberian mercenaries.

The demonstrators' plan had been to march to the French embassy in downtown Abidjan, where they were to protest what they said is inaction by the thousands of French peacekeepers who are in the country.

But police shot into the air and fired tear gas to chase away the demonstrators.

Aron Cyriaque, 22, a member of the We group, told VOA he was surprised to see the police dispersing the march, which had been called by supporters of the Gbagbo government.

He said the police told him and other demonstrators to get off the street. When they wouldn't leave, he said the police fired tear gas on them. Mr. Cyriaque said he cannot understand why the police did that.

There was apparently no coordination of efforts among two branches of Ivory Coast's security forces, the police and the paramilitary police, which briefly faced off against one another during Saturday's demonstration.

The police, who take orders from the security ministry, angered the paramilitary police by stopping the demonstration. Witnesses said paramilitary officers, who function under the defense ministry, apparently wanted the march to go on.

Witnesses say paramilitary police officers fired shots in the direction of the police. No one was hurt. President Laurent Gbagbo recently signed a decree granting the defense ministry to a member of his political party and the security ministry to an opposition party, as part of a new reconciliation government.

The new unity government has been set up under the terms of a French-brokered peace agreement to end a six month old rebel war that has killed hundreds in the once stable and prosperous West African country.

Despite the peace agreement and the establishment of a new government, peace prospects in Ivory Coast are uncertain, with all sides saying there remains much distrust among the ruling party, the opposition, and the rebels.

Rebels have been granted several ministries but have refused to take up their posts, saying they doubt that President Gbagbo will abide by the full terms of the accord.