Ivorian President Laurent Gbagbo has embarked on a planned multi-city three-day trip to the rebel-held north in Ivory Coast, following an agreement with rebel leader turned Prime Minister Guillaume Soro to hold national elections during the first half of 2008. VOA's Nico Colombant reports from our West Africa bureau in Dakar.
After Mr. Gbagbo touched down by helicopter in the city of Korhogo, in the Ivorian region known as the "Great North", he was greeted by musicians.
But local journalist Omar Sidibe says many people here know Mr. Gbagbo as the president who ordered the bombing of their areas, while cutting off water and electricity.
He says Prime Minister Soro preceded Mr. Gbagbo's visit by calling on northerners to, in his words, be affectionate toward the president, because he is Ivorian like they are.
Sidibe says for Mr. Gbagbo this a test to see if there is freedom of movement for goods, people and also political candidates across divided Ivory Coast.
Following meetings with Mr. Soro and mediator Burkinabe President Blaise Compaore in Burkina Faso Tuesday, Mr. Gbagbo said steady progress is being made in the drawn-out peace process.
He says now a phase begins to prepare elections.
Burkina Faso's Foreign Affairs Minister Djibril Bassole says the two sides agreed to hold elections in the first half of 2008. But Bassole adds logistics are still being worked out by election officials, who should be getting help from a French company called Sagem.
Elections, both presidential and legislative, have been pushed back in divided Ivory Coast for two years, amid repeated delays.
An identification program to nationalize undocumented northerners and give them voting rights has stalled many times amid procedural disputes, while armed rebels, known as the New Forces, or Forces Nouvelles, remain in control of more than half the country.
Analyst with the International Crisis Group, Gilles Yabi, says reintegration of some of the rebel fighters into the Ivorian army shows no sign of happening any time soon.
"We have no clear agreement – [on] for example, official agreement on the number of the rebels of the Forces Nouvelles who are going to be integrated into the new army," he said. "And we still have a lot of delays on the disagreement process. Nothing has really changed in the field of the disarmament and the integration of the Forces Nouvelles in the new army."
One stumbling block has been which ranks the rebels will have.
While Ivory Coast remains divided, Yabi says populations continue to suffer from this situation of semi-war, semi-peace, controlled by underpaid fighters.
"We are talking about reconciliation. We have this visit from Gbagbo. We have all these signs. But at the same time, we do not see on the ground, the end of the occupation of the territory by the Forces Nouvelles," he added. "Because without a clear solution for the former combatants of the rebellion, it will be difficult to see an end in the racket and distortion of funds for example by the Forces Nouvelles elements in the north."
Rebels say they took up arms in late 2002 for millions of undocumented northerners to become Ivorian citizens and voters. Supporters of Mr. Gbagbo say just tens of thousands of northerners without papers qualify for Ivorian nationality. Politicians from all sides agree Ivory Coast has never had a free and fair election.