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Several Ivory Coast Protesters Killed in Clash with Security Forces - 2004-03-25

Several people are reported killed in Ivory Coast, where security forces clashed with opposition protesters.

Security forces riding military vehicles fired tear gas and bullets on crowds in several neighborhoods of the commercial capital, Abidjan, as thousands took to the streets calling for the full implementation of a peace deal with rebels.

Witnesses in the Yopougon neighborhood confirmed two protesters had been shot dead, while the French military, which has a base in Abidjan, said two others were killed in the Koumassi neighborhood. Soldiers inside helicopters and atop tanks were also seen firing on civilians.

One of the main march organizers, the opposition Rally of the Republicans party, Cisse Bacongo, says the protesters were simply trying to gather before marching toward downtown Abidjan, the scheduled site of the protest.

He says protesters are non-violent, and some are even carrying flowers but that they are being prevented from leaving their neighborhoods. He said more than 20 people have been killed, but this has not been confirmed.

Military officials said they were being provoked by young militants throwing rocks, burning tires, and setting up barricades.

The protest was organized to push for the implementation of a year-old French-mediated peace agreement between northern-based rebels and President Laurent Gbagbo.

Opposition parties have accused Mr. Gbagbo of blocking implementation of the deal, which includes giving many northerners, who are now considered immigrants, the right to vote. The president said the rebels must disarm first.

A presidential decree issued earlier this week banned all public demonstrations. Despite last-minute diplomatic intervention by U.N. officials and Ghana President John Kufuor to have the protest called off, marchers decided to go ahead.

One of the protesters in the Koumassi neighborhood, Ahmed, an Ivorian-born immigrant from the north, says he is ready to die.

"Today we want peace," he said. "The real people who want peace in Ivory Coast, they are now in the street. We are not violent. We do not want violence. We just need peace and democratic expression. They have guns, but we do not care. They can kill all of us, but tomorrow there will be other kids that will fight against Gbagbo. He does not want peace."

Hundreds of marchers who approached downtown Abidjan were stripped, beaten, and held at makeshift detention centers.

Rebel leaders who were also planning to march in Abdidjan, suspended their participation on Wednesday, and instead organized marches in main rebel-held cities.