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One Year of Gbagbo: Ivory Coast Political Rifts Remain Strong - 2001-10-30

Ivory Coast this past week celebrated President Laurent Gbagbo's first year in office. It also is remembering the hundreds of people who died during the political turmoil that brought him to power. A national reconciliation forum has been started, but political divisions in Ivory Coast seem as strong as ever, and victims of political violence say they still are waiting for justice.

President Gbagbo's inauguration one year ago was supposed to end the social and political instability triggered by a 1999 military coup. However, one year later, Ivory Coast has tense civil peace, which is not the same as reconciliation.

Mr. Gbagbo had made his name as a long-time opposition leader. In last year's presidential election, he faced 1999 coup leader and then military dictator Robert Guei. When early returns showed Mr. Gbagbo soundly beating his opponent, the military ruler ordered the vote count stopped, and declared himself the winner. Mr. Gbagbo did not take his opponent's move lying down.

After the voting, the opposition candidate called all Ivorians to take to the streets until General Guei stepped down. Mr. Gbagbo's supporters heeded his calls and the general was forced to flee.

Mr. Gbagbo's coming to power ended Ivory Coast's brief experience with military rule. However, troubles were only beginning for the new president. Opposition leaders whom the military regime had barred from running for the presidency demanded new elections.

Violence began when the mainly Christian supporters of Mr. Gbagbo clashed in the streets with backers of Alassane Ouattara, a former prime minister. Mr. Ouattara, a Muslim who opponents say comes from Burkina Faso, had not been allowed to run because of questions about his nationality. Though Mr. Ouattara says both his parents were born in Ivory Coast, a court questioned this and declared him ineligible to seek the presidency.

Mr. Ouattara's backers demanded new elections in which their candidate would be allowed to run. Some 300 people died in street battles in the commercial capital, Abidjan.

One of the victims was a 14-year-old boy, Yacouba Cisse. Mamadou Cisse says his son was taken while on his way home from school because he had a Muslim-sounding name from northern Ivory Coast.

Mr. Cisse says Yacouba was asked his name, and as soon as he said it they beat him with their rifle butts and took him to the mass grave where his family found him the next day.

In early October, Mr. Gbagbo convened a national reconciliation forum to end the two-year-old political crisis. However, Mr. Ouattara, General Guei and former President Henri Konan Bedie, who was deposed in the 1999 coup, have not yet attended the talks. Meanwhile, victims of violence doubt Mr. Gbagbo is sincere in his desire for peace.

"We do not believe in reconciliation without justice. We need to know what happened, who gave the order," said Alimata Coulibaly, vice president of a victims' organization. "Maybe they need reconciliation for themselves to show people international people, that they have reconciled Cote d'Ivoire. But for us, we don't think they do really want reconciliation," she said.

Ms. Coulibaly believes Mr. Gbagbo is staging the forum to win international praise and economic aid rather than to bring about true reconciliation.

Government officials did not respond to VOA's request for a response to Ms. Coulibaly's charge.