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Ivory Coast Mixed Brigades Mired by Dispute Over Ranks


Mixed brigades in Ivory Coast are being launched in two towns in a buffer zone separating the government-run south and rebel-held north, but the process is mired in a dispute over military ranks given to rebels. There are also concerns about reports of growing insecurity in the region. VOA's Nico Colombant reports from our West Africa bureau in Dakar.

Preparations are being made for the joint patrols in Bangolo and Zeale, near the border with Liberia.

They are to consist of ten government soldiers, 10 rebels and four United Nations peacekeepers.

But a controversy over ranks seems to be slowing down the process.

Rebels want ranks they gave to their fighters to be recognized. The defense minister says that is a question the politicians in the power-sharing government must decide upon, maybe during meetings this week.

Since mid-April, French rapid reaction forces and U.N. peacekeepers, who have been manning the no-weapons buffer zone, stopped accompanying convoys of cars.

A humanitarian worker with the International Organization for Migration, Caroline Pagani, says this has already created problems in traveling from the south to the north.

"I had to take the road to the airport to take the flight of World Food Program and a few hours after I passed, there was a car that was shot on," she said. "They have installed a sort of escort but you have to wait until there are about 25 vehicles, which you cannot always do unfortunately, because you are restricted about the time."

She is pessimistic about Ivorian forces taking over the unstable area.

"They will not be able to face everything, I do not think so," she said. "Because they are not prepared for this. They do not have the equipment to do it. So how can they secure the country all by themselves? I do not think it is possible."

A spokesman for the French forces, Colonel Christian Racle, says international forces are still part of the process of securing Ivory Coast.

"According to me, it is a bit early for me to be optimistic or pessimistic," he said. "What I mean is that the Ivorian people have chosen that deployment. The authorities of the Ivory Coast have decided to settle such patrols and of course, as we are concerned, the impartial forces, that is to say the United Nations and the French forces will accompany that deployment."

An advisor for President Laurent Gbagbo, Lambert Bahi, says there have been some criminals taking advantage of the delicate transition period.

"You do have some thieves, and some groups of delinquents who are operating nightly in those areas, attacking the convoys of cars and passenger buses commuting from one city to another," said Bahi.

But he says it is important to keep in mind the overall goal of dismantling the buffer zone.

"We want to have elections. The president is determined to hold the elections this year, so definitely the reunification of the country goes with the dismantling of the buffer zone, because it is through the dismantling of the buffer zone, the creation of the mixed army patrol groups that is going to permit the redeployment of the administration, the return of the people that ran away, that fled from the towns where the war was actually taking place," he said.

Other steps that need to be taken following the latest peace deal signed in Burkina Faso include disarming militias, reunifying the army, identifying citizens and establishing new voter lists.

Rebels have occupied more than half of Ivory Coast since late 2002, saying they are fighting to give millions of undocumented northerners equal rights.