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Ivory Coast Government Bans Protest Marches - 2003-10-17

The reconciliation government in Ivory Coast has banned protest marches until next year and made other changes in an attempt to reduce tensions amid a faltering peace process. The action comes nearly a week after pro-government militias went on a rampage in the commercial capital, Abidjan.

State television announced the decision to ban marches was taken at a meeting of the council of government ministers Thursday.

The ban comes as activists close to President Laurent Gbagbo were preparing their first protest near rebel-held territory on Saturday.

Rebels and opposition political parties were also getting ready for their first march in Abidjan, in the government-held south, in support of a French-brokered peace accord. A failure to implement that peace deal has led rebels to suspend their participation in the power-sharing government.

Meanwhile, the ruling party of Mr. Gbagbo is accusing France of helping the rebels rearm and prepare for a new insurgency. France denies it is taking sides in its former colony.

Thursday's changes include banning a group of pro-Gbagbo militants, known as GPP, which was behind sabotage attacks on French-owned businesses in Abidjan last week. The council of ministers also decided to change the legal status of state media, which could give rebel leader-turned-Communications Minister Guillaume Soro more say in how its affairs should be run.

One of the reasons Mr. Soro is boycotting the power-sharing government is because, he says, rebel ministers have been given no power, only their titles.

One issue the council of ministers did not address is a call by another activist group, known as the Young Patriots, for its militants to attack newspaper vendors who sell pro-rebel newspapers in the south.

Newspaper vendor Tiekoura Soro says he's frightened and doesn't understand why poor people like him should be victimized because of the political crisis.

Newspaper vendor Mr. Soro also says it is especially difficult for him because he shares the same last name as the rebel leader, making him an easy target for pro-Gbagbo militants.

Rebels say attacks on newspaper vendors and the ban on marches set dangerous precedents for violation of the right to free speech. They also say they will continue to allow marches in the rebel-held north.