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Ivory Coast Warring Sides Begin Weapon Pullback

Opposing sides in Ivory Coast's civil war have begun pulling back heavy weapons from the front lines in the first concrete step towards what many hope is the beginning of total disarmament. The move is part of new peace making efforts in the divided West African nation.

A half dozen four-by-four trucks arrived Thursday at the Djebonoua checkpoint on the northern edge of the U.N.-patrolled buffer zone that separates northern rebels from government forces loyal to Ivory Coast's President Laurent Gbagbo.

The trucks, belonging to the rebel New Forces, towed two slightly rusted 120 millimeter mortars that, the rebel's sector commander said constituted the entirety of their arsenal in the sensitive corridor between the administrative capital, Yamoussoukro, and the rebel's own de facto capital, Bouake.

About 25 miles further south, on the other side of what is known in Ivory Coast as the Zone of Confidence, the Ivorian army was doing the same, removing an armored vehicle and several large caliber mortars.

The process of pulling back heavy artillery is part of new peace efforts brokered by South African mediators that many hope will put an end to the civil war that began in late 2002.

The New Forces commander in charge of the sector south of Bouake, who calls himself Sergeant Docteur, said his artillery never was a threat.

He says President Gbagbo has been responsible for past attacks on the north. Now that United Nations peacekeepers are there to monitor the process, he says, the New Forces are ready to disarm, but their efforts must be reciprocated.

The Ivorian armed forces broke a previous cease-fire last November, attacking positions in rebel-controlled territories. Earlier this year, villages were burned in the west, an attack Mr. Gbagbo denies supporting.

But now both sides say they are willing to negotiate for peace. At a meeting earlier this month in the South African administrative capital, Pretoria, all parties to the conflict agreed to begin the disarmament process and pave the way for presidential elections later this year.

A New Forces spokesman, Cisse Sendou, says his side is ready for an end to the war. "We hope that the Pretoria Accords will bring peace to the Ivory Coast. But it depends on the international community. It depends on President Laurent Gbagbo. And it depends on us. But for our side, we are ready to respect all the points of the accords," he said.

President Gbagbo has been meeting this week with supporters in preparation for a decision he says he will make later this week on whether or not to support, what he has called, the Pretoria Accords recommendations.

The weapons withdrawal, due to end next week, only involves a very limited number of heavy weapons. Most of the fighting in Ivory Coast has been carried out with small arms that are not yet scheduled to be scaled back.

A spokesman for the U.N. peacekeeping mission that is monitoring the disarmament process, Lieutenant Colonel Omar El-Khadir, says he is hopeful that Thursday's withdrawal is just a first step. "I think it will continue. Step by step, we can reach some positive results. We started by heavy weapons, then we move forward to another aspect. We should be optimistic," he said.

As the convoy pulled away from the Djebonoua checkpoint, headed north and further away from the front, New Forces fighter Adam Salago said he was happy to see them go.

"Its a good thing," he says. "We have been killing each other for too long."