Ivory Coast President Laurent Gbagbo has wrapped up a three-day visit to the rebel-held north of the country, where critics have expressed fear that the visit is only a symbolic gesture by the president to gain support. But as Phillip Wellman reports from the northern town of Korhogo, many local residents believe the president's presence is a sign that unity in the divided country is not far away.
Speaking in the town of Ferke on the first day of his visit, Mr. Gbagbo assured the audience that his tour of the area was intended to be more than just symbolic and he was working to bring full reconciliation to Ivory Coast.
Mr. Gbagbo has spoken at several similar ceremonies since he signed a peace accord in March with rebel-leader, and now Prime Minister Guillaume Soro. In July, the two leaders set fire to a stockpile of weapons to symbolize the end of the country's five-year conflict. Since the ceremony, however, most of the dates set out in the peace accord, which aims to secure free and fair presidential elections, have been missed.
Critics have expressed concern that Mr. Gbagbo's visit to the far north of Ivory Coast was organized to divert attention from the fact that implementation of the peace accord is taking longer than expected.
But many residents of Korhogo say they are convinced Ivory Coast will experience unity after seeing President Gbagbo speak in their town.
Cisse Djereba, who has been living in Korhogo for most of his life, says residents have been anticipating President Gbagbo's arrival in the north for a long time. He says people were happy to see Gbagbo and Soro working together and that he hopes the peace will last.
Kobenan Yao, who works as a tax official in Korhogo, says he believes Gbagbo traveled to the north for the sole intention of trying to bring lasting peace to the country.
He says the visit of President Gbagbo means that peace is a reality. He says it comforts the population of Korhogo to have the president visit and says many people from around the area came to support the demonstration. Yao says he believes the president's visit provides a fresh step towards reconciliation.
Likewise, Aby Coulibaly, 24, says she is now excited about the future. She says even people who do not normally support President Gbagbo support the peace process.
After seeing the president and after being in Korhogo it proves that the war is over she says. I am so very excited about the events.
While visiting Korhogo it was announced that Mr. Gbagbo and Soro had signed an agreement to hold presidential and parliamentary elections by June 2008. Mr. Gbagbo's presidential mandate was originally supposed to end in October 2005, but his term has been extended twice through U.N. resolutions.
The two leaders also agreed on disarming and integrating rebel soldiers into a new national army by December 22, a key requirement stipulated in the March peace accord.
Disputes over the ranks rebel soldiers will be given in the new army, however, and uncertainties on how low-level fighters will be disarmed are issues that still need to be worked out.