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Armed Ivory Coast Political Movements Recruit Thousands of Volunteers - 2003-05-10

In southern Ivory Coast, armed political movements are recruiting thousands of volunteers to oppose a power-sharing government with northern-based rebels.

Officers call to order hundreds of members of the Group of Patriots for Peace on a sports field on the outskirts of Abidjan. This is the Lions unit. They do push-ups and scream for victory over rebels. Their instructors are holding weapons.

The second in command of the Patriots for Peace, Secretary-General Toure Moussa Zeguen, says his group is opposed to a French-brokered peace plan that gives positions in the cabinet to rebels. He also accuses Burkina Faso and an opposition political leader of being behind the rebels. "We think that our movement is a popular movement to stop, you know, the terrorism of France and Burkina Faso with the political party of Alassane Ouattara so we are mobilizing people around the country, those who are ready to come and fight with us, you know, to not discuss with terrorists but fight them until they hang," he says.

The rebels are based in the north, near the border with Burkina Faso, a stronghold of Mr. Ouattara, who was excluded from recent presidential elections because of a court ruling that he didn't meet nationality requirements.

The Group of Patriots for Peace, according to Mr. Zeguen, is a counter-force to the rebels. It has about 6,000 volunteers, most them unemployed males. They train several times a week for several hours in the blazing sun. Some of their instructors are disgruntled army officers angered by the army's decision to sign a cease-fire with rebels.

Other similar groups, with names like the Cobras, Flic Flac or the Front for the Total Liberation of Ivory Coast, have also started training outside Abidjan. Estimates put the total number of militia members at 60,000.

Mr. Zeguen warns members of the reconciliation government their lives are at risk, because he says these groups have the means and the will to fight. "We said that we cannot admit in our country those people who killed our parents without any reason to come and become members of the government so the rebels, the government can be sure that we can attack any one of them at any time. We have enough weapons at this present time, we have enough things to fight them back, that's not the problem. We are expecting more and more weapons coming from the outside," he says.

Toure Moussa, a journalist for the political opposition newspaper Le Patriote, says he believes the militias are receiving weapons from members of the army and the police. He says they also receive training at police academies and military bases. Mr. Moussa says he is afraid these movements could evolve into deadly militias like the Interahamwe in Rwanda. He says it is very frightening because militia members outnumber soldiers and police in Ivory Coast.

But the U.N. envoy for peace in Ivory Coast Albert Tevoedjre believes the groups can be contained. He considers them part of the difficult process to end the war. "I am convinced that by persuasion from the government, from the religious groups, from the NGOs and for anyone who has any influence on youths things will get better," he says. "I see no reason why we should not be able to persuade those groups to disarm and to be part of the process."

The heads of two key ministries in the government, defense and the interior, still need to be named in order to finalize the peace deal.

Ivory Coast's civil war began in September, with the northern-based rebels accusing the government of President Laurent Gbagbo of xenophobia against immigrant populations from the north.

On the road leading back to Abidjan, another unit of the Group of Patriots for Peace is arriving for its training session. They sing songs calling for the liberation of northern and western areas under rebel control.

The unit's commander is Captain Zrakpa who likes to be known as Captain Z. He says he is fighting for democracy and that no one should be allowed to enter a government by the barrel of a gun.