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Ivorian Leaders End Reconciliation Forum - 2001-12-18

Political leaders in Ivory Coast have ended a two-month reconciliation forum aimed at resolving a two year old political crisis in the West African country. The forum finished Tuesday with President Laurent Gbagbo making a key concession to opposition leader Alassane Ouattara.

The forum sought to end two years of political turbulence that followed Ivory Coast's first-ever military coup in December of 1999.

At its start, many people expected little to come of the forum, since three of the country's four main political rivals had at first refused to participate. In the end, all appeared.

Perhaps the biggest surprise for many people here was the return from exile of opposition leader Alassane Ouattara, who observers say has been at the heart of the political crisis. Mr. Ouattara - popular among Ivory Coast's largest ethnic group - was barred from running in presidential elections that returned the country to civilian rule last year. The government at the time barred Mr. Ouattara from running, citing what it said were doubts of whether he was of full Ivorian nationality.

Mr. Ouattara addressed the forum on December 1, demanding that the government formally recognize his nationality. Last week, the forum issued a statement recommending that the government do so.

At Tuesday's closing ceremony, President Laurent Gbagbo drew applause from the audience when he declared he agrees with the forum's recommendation on the question of Alassane Ouattara's nationality.

President Gbagbo said, "the forum has made its recommendation, and I have nothing to add." Mr. Gbagbo said, "the debate has gone for too long, and it has brought nothing but harm to our country."

While many Ivorians believe it was a good thing that the government brought together the main opponents in this forum, not all are happy with the recommendation to comply with Mr. Ouattara's request. This Ouattara opponent, who identified herself only as Nanon, says she believes too many concessions were made.

"She says the forum directors let themselves be intimidated by one individual. That is not how it should be. [On the question of Mr. Ouattara's nationality], it was not up to them to make a decision." She said, "that should be left only to the courts. The forum's recommendation was not a good thing."

For the Gbagbo government, the stakes in the forum were high. The international community had suspended millions of dollars in aid following the 1999 military coup. Foreign donors had been reluctant to resume aid unless the Gbagbo government showed that the political crisis was resolved.

Since the start of the forum, the European Union and the International Monetary Fund have begun to reconsider a resumption of aid.