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Ivory Coast Unity Government Prepares for Second Meeting - 2003-03-19

The new unity government in Ivory Coast is getting ready for its second cabinet meeting. A major opposition party which boycotted the first meeting says it plans attend this time. But it is not clear whether the rebels will take part.

The new cabinet will technically be meeting for the second time in the capital, Yamoussoukro, but in many ways it will seem like the first time. More than half of the new ministers skipped the first meeting, last Thursday, largely out of fear for their own safety.

Yamoussoukro is in government-held territory, and the rebels who launched the war six months ago were nervous about walking into the hands of their opponents. Even though they are supposed to hold nine cabinet posts, all three rebel factions boycotted last week's meeting.

So did members of the Rally of Republicans opposition party, which is supposed to head the justice ministry, among others. The government accuses the opposition party of supporting the rebels, although party leaders have consistently denied having any formal ties to the insurgents.

Members of the party returned to Ivory Coast Tuesday after months of exile, to take up their jobs in the new unity government. Two senior party officials said they are satisfied with the security arrangements that have been made for them. But the party's top leader, Alassane Ouattara, has not yet returned to the country.

Security at the cabinet meeting will be handled by French and west African peacekeeping troops, not by government soldiers.

By Wednesday afternoon it was still not clear whether the rebels would accept the security arrangements and agree to attend the meeting.

Meanwhile, the International Committee of the Red Cross says four local Red Cross volunteers have been found dead in the western rebel-held zone. The four disappeared in January, near the town of Toulepleu. Reports said they had been abducted by armed men.

The Red Cross now says their bodies have been found, but there are still few details on how and where they died.

A Red Cross spokesman told VOA the organization has called for an immediate investigation, and has called on the local authorities to provide security guarantees for other humanitarian workers in the region.

The spokesman said the Red Cross has not been able to work in the area around Toulepleu for months because of the security situation. The town is near the Liberian border, deep in the territory of the western rebel factions.