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Ivory Coast: Pro-Gbagbo Groups Rally to Prevent Opposition Protest - 2004-03-22


Youth groups in Ivory Coast who are close to President Laurent Gbagbo are vowing to prevent a planned protest Thursday in favor of a stalled peace deal with rebels.

The leader of the Young Patriots, Charles Ble Goude, is urging his street soldiers, as he calls them, to block off areas of the city starting Wednesday night to prevent protesters from regrouping.

The Young Patriots have been holding rallies daily since last week to mobilize pro-Gbagbo militants against Thursday's scheduled march.

Mr. Ble Goude says the peace deal signed in January 2002 is what he calls a constitutional coup and that Thursday's protest is another attempt to remove Mr. Gbagbo from power.

"The peace process is due to the envy of the opposition to take the power by force and with their weapons. We are opposed to that because we think that we must give life to democracy," he said. "Democracy means let the president finish his mandate. Let him finish what he's been elected for. After that, in 2005, whoever wants to lead the country will have the chance to campaign and then convince the people of Ivory Coast with his program what he wants to do once he's elected."

Opposition parties and rebels say Mr. Gbagbo's election in 2000 was illegitimate because other opposition candidates were barred from competing.

They also accuse him of blocking implementation of the power-sharing peace deal. It includes giving many northerners now considered immigrants the right to become Ivorians, own land, vote and compete in national elections.

A spokesman for the rebels who control the north, Sidiki Konate, says the march will go ahead despite threats by the Young Patriots and a recent decree by President Gbagbo banning demonstrations for now.

"The other people have the right to march, and I don't think that it will be a good idea to come against this march," said Mr. Konate. "We are now fighting for democracy which is very, very important for us, for the Ivorians."

Leading up to the protest, pro-Gbagbo newspapers have warned of a renewed coup attempt, while opposition newspapers say there could be violent repression by security forces.

Some aides close to Mr. Gbagbo say that whatever happens Thursday could delay the deployment of 6,000 U.N. peacekeepers scheduled to begin in April.

Meanwhile, French peacekeepers already on the ground have canceled a training exercise planned with the Ivorian army, saying the situation is too tense.

The political climate started deteriorating earlier this month when the former Ivorian ruling party known as the PDCI pulled out of the power-sharing government, saying Mr. Gbagbo was also refusing to share power.

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