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Tensions Rise in Ivory Coast Amid Tentative Steps in Peace Process


In Ivory Coast, a recent attack in a village along the volatile dividing line between rebel and government-controlled regions of the country has once again highlighted the difficulty of carrying out confidence building measures in preparation for October elections. Rivalries and mistrust persist, particularly in the cocoa-rich west of the country.

Three magistrates are investigating the murder last month of five people in and around the village of Diouzon near the western town of Bangolo.

In the presence of U.N. police, witnesses told the magistrates that 20 people they described as "foreigners", a term often used to describe northerners, from neighboring villages came and shot the five villagers, who were members of the indigenous Guere ethnic group.

Violence in villages around Bangolo has been common since the civil war in Ivory Coast began in 2002, and has continued despite the presence of U.N. and French soldiers who patrol the zone of confidence that runs across Ivory Coast, separating the rebel-held north and the government-held south. Diouzon lies in the zone of confidence, where no one is allowed to bear arms, except the U.N. and French soldiers.

Tierou Hipéhé says one of the victims of the Diouzon attack, Toe Fahe George, was the village's largest cocoa planter. Weaving around houses that were burned in a similar attack last year, he enters George's house.

Hipéhé says the men opened the door to the house and started shooting. He says, everyone was around including children and women. He says, George was shot in the face, and another person was injured.

George's two wives and 16 children fled to Bangolo the same day. Almost everyone else in the village followed, leaving their houses vacant.

A few youths who are still there are now feeding themselves with coconuts they found in the surrounding jungle. There are no women around to prepare food.

The village seems dead. Hipéhé points out the village bar, saying Diouzon used to be a vibrant place, with people coming here to meet and enjoy themselves.

He says the village was lively and charming before. He says, there was a thriving market. Now, he says, it feels like it has lost its personality.

The latest attack on Diouzon and the continuing distrust among rival groups illustrate the difficulties the country faces in implementing the terms of a French-mediated peace accord and preparing for presidential elections in October.

The northern rebel New Forces say they are fighting for equal rights for northerners, who, they say, are treated as second class citizens, and, many of whom are perceived as foreigners by supporters of President Laurent Gbagbo. Mr. Gbagbo says they are trying to control Ivorian assets and must be stopped.

The New Forces want millions of residents to be registered before elections can be held in October. The president's supporters are demanding the rebels disarm.

A pilot registration program in seven municipalities that began Thursday is designed to begin the process of giving people identification cards they will need to register to vote. Prime Minister Charles Konan Banny announced the registration program this week, and said it would be accompanied by a disarmament program. Mr. Gbabgo's supporters are angry that disarmament has not yet begun.

In Diouzon, Hipéhé says people will not return to their village, until the militias are disarmed.

He says, militias and rebels need to be disarmed, before registration begins. He says, nobody can return to the village before this happens. He says, Diouzon is only 12 kilometers from rebel territory, while U.N. and French forces are 30 kilometers away.