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International Peacekeepers Struggle to Establish Weapons-Free Zone in Ivory Coast - 2004-07-22


As fighting factions in Ivory Coast refuse to disarm 18 months after agreeing to a peace deal, international peacekeepers have tried to establish a weapon-free zone of confidence stretching along the front lines of the conflict. Despite their efforts there have been ethnically motivated attacks in the sensitive area as well as incursions from both rebels and the Ivorian army.

French peacekeeping troops marked the French national holiday, Bastille Day, earlier this month near their base in the city of Duekoue as part of their efforts to win the support of the local population.

About 1,000 of them are deployed in the western part of Ivory Coast, which was known during the civil war as the "wild wild West" because of its roaming bands of mercenaries.

At a street side café in Bangolo, English teacher Alexandre Tie remains unconvinced of the effectiveness of French troops. He says that in Bangolo pro-rebel populations, migrants from the north and foreign Burkinabes known as Mossi, and pro-government vigilante members from the local Guere ethnic group remain armed.

"Actually things are not going for the best," he said. "When the rebels came around here they got the support of the Burkinabes, and when they were chased by the French army they stayed, the Mossi, I mean, with some weapons. And then when the people, the Guere, when they want to revolt, you know to rebel, they kill them, because now, they are really armed. And the French army tries to do something, but honestly they are armed, they are armed."

Dozens of people have been killed in ethnically motivated violence in Bangolo since the zone of confidence was established last year. But the commander of French forces for the western part of the zone, Colonel Christophe de Saint Chamas, says his troops have prevented hundreds of deaths.

He says French troops intervene in villages almost daily to prevent violence between northern migrant populations and locals, which he says could lead to ethnic cleansing or at least entire groups being chased out.

An Ivorian government minister from the region who came to congratulate French troops, Eric Kahe, says he believes their performance is improving, even though there was initially some friction with local Ivorians.

He says the zone of confidence is very large so it is impossible to have security everywhere. He also welcomed the start of a new mixed brigade between U.N. peacekeepers and Ivorian police in Bangolo.

The brigade marks the start of U.N. deployment in western Ivory Coast, where the peacekeepers from the world body should soon take over for French forces.

The newly arrived deputy of the U.N mission in Ivory Coast, Alan Doss, who made a brief visit to Bangolo last week, stressed the importance of the new brigade.

"We want to have and encourage national participation, after all this is Ivory Coast so Ivorians should be leading the way," he explained. "So we brought together gendarmes, police from both sides, working together with our people, French forces, U.N. forces in what is now called the mixed brigade to undertake patrolling, police activities in that zone, because even though the zone is between the two, we do not want it to become a zone of lawlessness. There are problems," he admitted. "So it is really something of an experiment. If it is successful we hope to extend it to other parts of the zone of confidence pending the whole reunification of the country."

The demilitarized zone has not been immune from incursions across front lines. Both the army and northern rebels have accused French troops of allowing these to take place. In one instance in June in the central part of the demilitarized zone, an attack by a group of 20 rebel mercenaries was followed by retaliation from government helicopters on a rebel convoy in the north.

The French commander, Colonel de Saint Chamas, denies French troops favor either side as critics have charged. But he says his soldiers are waiting impatiently for U.N. troops to replace them as peacekeepers. When that happens he says French troops will act exclusively as a rapid reaction force, becoming even more effective at ending the violence.

Meanwhile, the leaders of the warring sides in the Ivorian conflict as well as opposition parties are due to meet for renewed talks in Ghana next week to salvage the stalled peace deal, which includes changing the constitution in order to safeguard the rights of northern populations.

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