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Skepticism Precedes Ivory Coast Peace Talks - 2004-07-28


Peace talks between the Ivorian government and rebels are to resume in Ghana on Thursday but Ivorians, both in the government-run south and rebel-held north, are skeptical progress can be made. Supporters of President Laurent Gbagbo are threatening to riot if he is forced to make more concessions.

Pro-Gbagbo militias, known as the Young Patriots, say they will shut down Abidjan on Thursday and prevent French and United Nations peacekeepers from moving around the city.

The militia's self-styled commander Wartchard Kedjebo says he will also force embassies to close, but that the protest will be non-violent, as long as the talks are taking place. Speaking from his operations headquarters in Abidjan, Mr. Kedjebo says Young Patriots will not allow foreigners to dictate the future of Ivory Coast. U.N. officials along with West African leaders are taking part in the talks.

Mr. Kedjebo says if Mr. Gbagbo is forced to make changes to the constitution, his followers will riot and Ivorian opposition leaders will not be allowed to return.

The ruling party of President Gbagbo has called the stalled peace accord signed in France in January 2003 a constitutional coup. The president himself has said it is bitter medicine which doesn't seem to be working, because the rebels aren't disarming.

Ruling party newspapers fear Thursday's summit in Accra could impose a list of candidates for 2005 presidential elections, including popular northerner Alassane Ouattara. He has been barred from recent elections because of questions about his nationality.

The French-brokered peace deal includes changing the Ivorian constitution to ease nationality requirements for candidates, which could allow Mr. Ouattara to run - an outcome Young Patriot Thierry Legre is not ready to accept.

"I think that the constitution of Cote d'Ivoire is a good constitution. The president Laurent Gbagbo is the president of all Ivorians. I think that the enemy number one of this country is Alassane Dramane Ouattara," says Mr. Legre. "Ivorians cannot accept that this man can break the post of president of the republic of Cote d'Ivoire."

Mr. Ouattara, a former prime minister, is among the Ivorian opposition leaders attending the talks, but civilians in the northern rebel city of Bouake are very pessimistic as well, according to local journalist Lassina Serme. He says northerners don't believe the international community can pressure Mr. Gbagbo into applying the peace deal. Constitutional changes, which would also include giving many northerners now considered foreigners Ivorian citizenship and voting rights, have languished in parliament in recent weeks.

The deputy head of the U.N. peacekeeping mission in Ivory Coast, Alan Doss, is more optimistic but says it's up to the Ivorians themselves to settle their differences.

"I wouldn't want to predict the outcome of Accra at this point. The fact that it's taking place is very important. I think it will bring together the parties to the conflict here with some of their peers from the region and the secretary-general so we certainly hope that it will produce good results. But this will depend very much on the Ivorian parties to the crisis," says Mr. Doss. "We can't substitute for their good will, good faith and their determination to bring the crisis to an end."

The peace process came to a halt in March when opposition and rebel leaders pulled out of the power-sharing government following a deadly government crackdown on a pro-peace march in Abidjan. Rebels say they won't disarm until they are given assurances the peace deal is effectively being implemented.

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