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Tensions Run High in  Ivory Coast; Troops on High Alert - 2004-03-21

The commercial capital of Ivory Coast, Abidjan, has been put on maximum alert this weekend as tensions swell between members of the national unity government and opposition and rebel movements.

Helicopters that have been patrolling the skies over Abidjan since Friday were initially reported as conducting routine exercises, but now army officials have confirmed a heightened military presence in the city.

An army spokesman was quoted by the Reuters news agency as saying that an attack on Abidjan is imminent. The spokesman believes that rebel forces that currently control the northern half of the country are planning the attack.

Political tensions have been growing since the main opposition party suspended its participation in the national unity government two weeks ago. The following week, three more political and rebel movements threatened to boycott the government.

The national unity government was formed after a peace accord was signed in 2003 to effectively end Ivory Coast's civil war.

The opposition and rebel movements have scheduled a public demonstration against President Laurent Gbagbo for March 25, because they say he has failed to implement the measures of the peace accord.

Following the announcement of the march, President Gbagbo banned all public demonstrations, saying he wanted to deter his own supporters from creating a public disturbance. But opposition leaders said they still plan to march.

In response, Mr. Gbagbo's supporters have threatened a counter-demonstration on the same day.

Security forces in the business district of Plateau, where the presidential palace is located, have declared the area a red zone and say public demonstrations in that area will not be tolerated.

The United Nations is due to deploy 6,000 more peacekeepers in Ivory Coast in just two weeks.