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UN, Ivory Coast Mediators Investigate New Mercenary Charges

South African and United Nations officials are investigating allegations that the Ivorian government has been actively recruiting Liberian mercenaries, despite all parties signing a peace deal last week in Pretoria. An Ivorian rebel spokesman says that there is now a big question mark over conditions to be set for scheduled disarmament.

The accusation that Ivory Coast President Laurent Gbagbo is recruiting foreign mercenaries was made by northern rebels last week right after the new peace deal was signed.

A report in Liberia this week also said the U.N peacekeeping mission there had arrested a dual Ivorian-Liberian national, Adama Keita, on suspicion he was recruiting child soldiers for Mr. Gbagbo.

Mr. Keita is suspected to have been a main coordinator for one of the rebel groups that toppled former Liberian President Charles Taylor last year.

But a spokesman for the U.N. mission in Ivory Coast, Hamadoun Toure, said Wednesday he has been unable to confirm if peacekeepers in Liberia arrested Mr. Keita. Mr. Toure said that if this was the case, the man had probably been released due to lack of evidence.

The South African government, which was given the task of mediating the Ivorian crisis by the African Union, is also investigating the claims of mercenary recruitment. Deputy Foreign Minister Aziz Pahad said that if the claim is substantiated, action would be taken.

As specified in the accord reached in Pretoria, government and New Forces rebels are meeting Thursday in the rebel-held northern town of Bouake to discuss conditions for disarmament and demobilization of troops.

A spokesman for the New Forces, Cisse Sindou, said that reports of the government's recruitment of militias put a question mark over how disarmament would proceed, although the New Forces were still committed to the Pretoria accord. But Mr. Sindou said that he believes Mr. Gbagbo will attack the north, once the rebels give up their weapons.

"His plan is to have the U.N. or the mediators disarm us so he could really recruit some minors as militias to really kill people, since as minors we cannot really fight against them," he said.

The Gbagbo government has denied every allegation and report of militia recruitment, saying that it is a diversion and an excuse for the rebels not to observe the Pretoria agreement.

But in an interview Wednesday with VOA, a researcher for the New York-based advocacy group Human Rights Watch, Corinne Duffka, said that at the end of March she recorded interviews with former Liberian fighters who claimed that the Ivorian government has been recruiting child soldiers from Liberia, and taking them to bases within Ivory Coast.

"I interviewed Liberian former combatants,” she said. “I interviewed 13 of them including three commanders and eight children, and one other, or a few others, who described to me having been recruited from Liberia since October of last year, and going into bases and there they talked about receiving payments from Ivorian military officers, one colonel and one sergeant."

In a wider, regional report released Wednesday, Human Rights Watch warned that thousands of ex-fighters in West Africa are in danger of being drawn back into conflict, because they have no other means of making a living. The organization has also said that new fighting in Ivory Coast could affect Liberia. Both countries are scheduled to hold post-conflict elections in October.