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Exiled Ivorian Opposition Leader Says He Will Return for Forum - 2001-11-29

Ivory Coast opposition leader Alassane Ouattara, exiled in France, has announced he will return to the West African country to attend a forum for national reconciliation.

Many here in Ivory Coast see Alassane Ouattara as being at the heart of the political impasse that the country's leaders are now trying to resolve by way of the reconciliation forum. Mr. Ouattara's exclusion from elections last year enflamed tensions between Ouattara supporters, who are largely Muslims of the northern Dioula ethnic group, and southerners of other ethnicities who are mostly Christians.

Some northerners believe they have been excluded from political life in Ivory Coast. Ouattara supporters say they see their leader as the only candidate from the north with enough of a following to be elected president.

Mr. Ouattara announced his return on Thursday, after meeting with Gabon's president, Omar Bongo, in the Gabonese capital, Libreville. Ouattara supporters rallied outside his party's headquarters in Abidjan, preparing a welcome for him. One supporter, Ousman Camara says he believes the dialogue at the reconciliation forum can now go forward.

Mr. Camara says, "All of the other political leaders have spoken, and now Mr. Ouattara will be on the same field with the rest. We are very happy he is coming."

Despite the continuing political impasse, Ivory Coast has remained calm for the last several months. Some Ivorians fear that Alassane Ouattara's return may shatter that fragile peace.

At a busy street corner in central Abidjan, supporters of current President Laurent Gbagbo gather to talk about Mr. Ouattara's return. Twenty-seven-year-old law student Andre Ygamuh says he opposes Mr. Ouattara, and would never vote for him to become president. But he says the opposition leader must be allowed to return, if the reconciliation process is to succeed.

Mr. Ygamuh says: "It is good that Alassane Ouattara is coming. We are living in an age of globalization and openness. So it is good that he is coming to explain himself, and to tell us his version of the truth about his nationality and other issues."

Mr. Ouattara has been living in France since shortly after the Ivory Coast Supreme Court last year banned him from running for president, due to doubts about whether he was of full Ivorian nationality. Observers at the time said the decision was part of then-military ruler General Robert Guei's strategy to eliminate all viable opponents from running against him in last year's presidential elections.

The opposition leader had stayed away from the forum, insisting he would not return to Ivory Coast unless the government could guarantee his security.

Mr. Ouattara is due to arrive in Ivory Coast on Friday. He is scheduled to address the forum on Saturday.