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Ivory Coast Opens Controversial Identification Scheme

Officials in a half dozen towns in war-divided Ivory Coast have begun registering residents who, until now, have had no documents or legal status. The pilot project launched by the country's transitional prime minister is a necessary step to clear the way for a presidential vote later this year. Joe Bavier has more from Abidjan, with additional reporting by Franz Wild from the western town of Meagui.

"The seven-day pilot project is not only the starting point for identification," Ivorian Prime Minister Charles Konan Banny told a crowd gathered in Meagui, one of the sites in western Ivory Coast. "It is also the starting point for the entire peace process," he said.

In Port Bouet, a neighborhood on the edge of the commercial capital, Abidjan, several dozen residents arrived early Thursday to take part in the identification process.

Twenty-year-old Gisele Nta says she has come to obtain documents, so she can apply for a birth certificate. "My parents never applied for one," she says. "I have never had any papers."

Many Ivorians are in similar situations. Many parents never register the births of their children, making it difficult for them to obtain national identity cards. Others, displaced by the war, left their ID cards behind when they fled the fighting.

The cards are needed for voting, and in the current atmosphere of lawlessness in the country, Gisele says, they are needed to avoid having to bribe policemen at the checkpoints in the south.

The identification of Ivorian citizens has long been one of the key stumbling blocks in negotiations to end the civil war that has divided Ivory Coast in two for more than three-and-a-half years.

The northern rebel New Forces say they are fighting for equal rights for northerners, who, they say, are treated as second class citizens.

The issue is especially important in the run up to a planned presidential election in October. Decisions made on nationality in the coming months will determine who will be allowed to vote.

Supporters of President Laurent Gbagbo are against the prime minister's pilot project, which, they say, could be used to manipulate voter lists.

Dozens of militant pro-Gbagbo supporters arrived at the identification center in Port Bouet. Paterne Kouame was one of them.

"There are many [foreigners] in our country," he said. "They want to profit [from] this process to be Ivorian. That's why were here. To see how the civil servant will do his job."

The hearings are open to the public, a way of ensuring the process is transparent. But in Port Bouet, Young Patriots intervened during several interviews, and several fights broke out between Gbagbo supporters, residents wanting to register and police.

Most who had been waiting have their cases heard left during the violence, including Gisele, and her sister Elisabeth, who had come to serve as one of her two required witnesses.

"They say you are an Ivorian acting like a foreigner without papers," Elisabeth says. "They call you 'a chicken without an owner, running all over the place.'"

A parallel plan to begin the early phases of disarmament of northern rebels and southern militias failed to take place after talks broke down between rebel and government military leaders Wednesday.

The pilot identification project is due to end on May 25, and is due to be followed by full-scale identification process across the country.