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Opposition Praises Government Decision on Ouattara Citizenship - 2001-12-14

Opposition party officials in Ivory Coast are hailing a decision by the country's national reconciliation committee to recommend that opposition leader Alassane Ouattara be issued a certificate of citizenship. Observers say the move represents a step forward in the West African country's bid to end a two-year political stalemate.

Former Prime Minister Alassane Ouattara has been at the heart of Ivory Coast's political crisis since the Supreme Court last year barred him from running in presidential and legislative elections.

Mr. Ouattara enjoys strong support among Ivory Coast's northern Dioulas, the country's single largest ethnic group. Some Dioulas, who are mostly Muslim, believe they have been traditionally excluded from political life in Ivory Coast, which has been dominated by southerners of other ethnic groups.

The Supreme Court barred the former Prime Minister from standing in the elections, basing its decision on what judges said were doubts about his nationality. Government lawyers at the time argued Mr. Ouattara had on previous occasions presented himself as being from Burkina Faso.

Mr. Ouattara went into self-imposed exile in France last year. He returned to Ivory Coast two weeks ago to address the country's forum on national reconciliation, which has been going on for two months in an effort to end the political impasse. Mr. Ouattara used a speech at the forum on December 1 to defend his nationality, presenting what he said was evidence that his lineage is fully Ivorian.

At first, the opposition leader had refused to take part in the meeting saying he would not participate unless the government agreed to issue him a certificate of nationality. The government has not yet done so nor has it agreed to follow the forum's recommendations on the matter. But President Laurent Gbagbo appeared to give signs that it might comply when he declared at the forum that the country's new constitution was written specifically to keep Mr. Ouattara out of the presidential race.

Mr. Ouattara and his Rally of the Republicans Party, or RDR, have insisted on calling for a new constitution and new elections. Many Ivorians say they fear that would mean prolonging the political crisis.

Following the forum's recommendation Thursday, an RDR spokesman Ali Coulibaly said that while the party was not dropping its demands for new elections, it considered the call for the government to formally recognize Mr. Ouattara's citizenship "a notable advance" toward achieving national unity.