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Ivory Coast Government, Rebels Reach Disarmament Agreement

The U.N. mission in Ivory Coast is hailing the agreement reached between the government forces and northern rebels to begin the disarmament process next week. The issue has been a stumbling block in Ivory Coast's efforts to end four years of civil war.

Under the terms of the disarmament agreement, militias who have fought on the side of President Laurent Gbagbo would be the first to disarm and be dismantled, starting June 8.

Jean-Luc Stallon is head of the disarmament, demobilization and reintegration process for the U.N. Operation in Ivory Coast. He told VOA this is a major step.

"I think it is a great achievement that this issue has been formally put down in the final communiqué of the meeting between the two chiefs of staff," he said.

Stallon believes that both sides are looking forward in a spirit of cooperation.

"The atmosphere was positive," he said. "It transpired that the two forces are on the same page with the prime minister, who has been pushing the process forward."

Both the government and rebels say they hope this will pave the way for demobilization and the eventual merging of their armed forces.

The rebel forces announced recently that they have taken preliminary steps to facilitate that process. Stallon confirmed that, but said it is crucial to maintain momentum.

"Activities of pre-cantonment have started in the two areas," he added. "However, the two forces have agreed to pursue these efforts, and to continue with implementation of the pre-cantonment."

Disarmament and demobilization are considered crucial for the peace process ahead of elections planned for October. Both sides, as well as the U.N., are unwilling to set a timetable for completion of the disarmament process, but insist that progress is being made.

Ivory Coast has been divided since the rebel New Forces took control of the north in 2002.