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Thousands of Ivorians Demand Rebels Disarm - 2003-10-02

Thousands of Ivorians have taken to the streets of the commercial capital, Abidjan, to demand the disarmament of rebels, nearly 10 months after the signing of a peace agreement.

Activists marched, raised flags and played drums in the government-controlled southern city of Abidjan, while thousands of workers stayed home.

Protest organizers say the march marked one year of popular resistance against rebels who control northern Ivory Coast.

Hundreds of thousands of Ivorians took part in the first protest on October 2 last year. The main organizer, former student activist Charles Ble Goude, says the message is still the same.

"Weapons cannot solve the problem that we are living," he said. "What can save the country is only democracy. The way we are making a difference is that we are organizing marches we are organizing meetings. I mean, we are fighting with democratic means while our opponents are taking weapons to kill people, to steal people's goods. This is the difference between them and us."

Some of the demonstrations earlier this year turned violent, when protesters opposed to a French-mediated peace deal burned down French businesses and schools. France is the former colonial power in Ivory Coast.

Last month, the rebels suspended their participation in a power-sharing government because, they say, nothing in the peace agreement is being implemented as planned.

Speaking from the rebel stronghold of Bouake, rebel leader Guillaume Soro called for the resignation of President Laurent Gbagbo, saying he was inciting rebels to return to war.

Mr. Soro also called for a new French ambassador in Ivory Coast, saying current envoy Gildas Le Lidec is biased toward Mr. Gbagbo.

A march against President Gbagbo is being planned in Bouake for Saturday. Rebels say they are fighting for northerners, many of them immigrants from neighboring countries who feel like second-class citizens.

But insecurity has been increasing in rebel-controlled areas. A bank robbery in Bouake last week left more than 20 people dead. And there are also growing signs of divisions within rebel ranks.