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Former Ivory Coast President Launches New Bid

The previously deposed president of divided Ivory Coast, Henri Konan Bedie, has launched a new bid to reclaim the presidency in possible elections later this year.

Thousands of militants of the former long-time ruling party (PDCI) streamed into a sports stadium in the neighborhood of Treichville, banging drums and singing songs.

Speaker after speaker took to the stage.

This one said all farmers, taxi drivers, bus drivers and unemployed youth should rally behind Bedie.

He ended his speech with a rallying cry of Bedie for President.

One militant, wearing a 'convention of March 11 for Bedie' T-shirt, explained to VOA why the day was important.

"Our president, Henri Konan Bedie, we are coming to invest him as candidate of PDCI-RDA. Henri Konan Bedie is the best man. He can give the prosperity of Cote d'Ivoire," he said.

Ever since Bedie was toppled in a Christmas coup in 1999, the Ivorian economy, already crippled by slowing cocoa prices, has deteriorated further. Bedie, now in his early 70s, was barred from elections in 2000, after a review board said he had failed to pass required medical exams.

This could be his last chance to run because of a current constitutional age limit for presidential candidates of 75.

An older militant said he is encouraged this year's election process is taking shape, after polls were canceled in October 2005.

"We can say it's an important thing we want to go through," he explained. "So, now the parties are preparing this period. PDCI wants to win the election and to rule the country again, to implement peace, and to give Cote d'Ivoire the place it had before."

Bedie's rule, following the 1993 death of long-time President Felix Hophouet-Boigny was marked by corruption and the implementation of a system known as Ivorianess, which discriminated against northerners.

Current President Laurent Gbagbo, who will run as well, has attracted some former PDCI members into his camp by accusing the former colonial power France of meddling in Ivorian affairs. A member of his party showed up, saying Saturday's events were important for democracy.

The other main opponent will be twice barred candidate, Alassane Ouattara, a former prime minister popular with northerners.

He was also present at Saturday's launch. Ouattara and Bedie have said they will present a united front, if either faces Mr. Gbagbo in a second round run-off.

A new mediator-appointed prime minister, Charles Konan Banny, is in charge of disarming rebels and militias, as well as identifying who is an Ivorian, and distributing voting cards, a very substantial program before scheduled elections in October.

Northern rebels took over half the country in late 2002, saying they were fighting to give equal rights to northerners, often considered as foreigners. U.N. peacekeepers and a French rapid reaction force have created a buffer zone along the cease-fire line that separates rebels from the army and militias.