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Peacekeepers Begin Work on Disarmament Program in Ivory Coast - 2003-12-26


French and African peacekeepers have begun verifying the start of a process aimed at disarming northern rebels and the army in divided Ivory Coast.

Teams of international peacekeepers started work Friday in the government-run south and the rebel-held north to verify that both sides have started pulling back heavy weaponry from the conflict's front-lines.

Rebels and the army were also due to tear down checkpoints along the country's highways.

Commanders from both sides told VOA Friday they had complied with what is being called a pre-disarmament process. A spokesman for the French peacekeepers, Georges Peillon, says it's now to up his teams to verify this is true.

Mr. Peillon says the verification is officially scheduled to take three days, but he says it will probably take much longer.

He says it's the first step in a process of disarmament, demobilization of fighters from both sides and reintegration of rebels, many of whom are soldiers, into the regular army.

Fighting between the army and rebels ended late last year with the deployment of several thousand peacekeepers, but the rebels remain armed and in control of the northern half of Ivory Coast.

Rebels said earlier this week their political leaders would rejoin a power-sharing government in the southern commercial capital Abidjan, but there are no government meetings planned until early next year.

The rebels quit the government in September, accusing President Laurent Gbagbo of blocking implementation of a stalled French-brokered peace accord signed last January. It includes giving voting rights and Ivorian citizenship to many northerners now considered immigrants.

France has taken an active role in resolving the crisis in its former colony, which is the world's leading cocoa producer.