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Ivorian Rebel Leader:  Disarmament Hinges on Elections - 2004-02-26

The main rebel leader in Ivory Coast says his fighters will not disarm until free and fair elections are held. The United Nations is expected to approve a peacekeeping force for the divided West African country.

Speaking during a visit to Mali, rebel leader Guillaume Soro said his northern-based group, now known as the New Forces, will not disarm until, what he called, credible and open elections are held in Ivory Coast.

He said disarmament is a process that can not happen without progress in implementing a power-sharing peace deal signed last year with President Laurent Gbagbo. Rebels have complained that Mr. Gbagbo has blocked implementation of the accord since he agreed to it.

The accord includes giving voting rights to many northerners who are considered foreigners. It would also loosen nationality requirements for candidates in Ivory Coast presidential elections.

Popular northern-based opposition leader Alassane Ouattara was barred from running in the previous election in 2000 because of doubts over his nationality.

A top political aide to Mr. Soro, Mamadou Togba, accuses President Gbagbo of being insincere. He says that the president can not completely ignore the peace deal and then expect the 18-month rebellion to end, because he says the whole point of the rebellion was to pave the way for elections involving all Ivorians.

Mr. Gbagbo has called on the rebels to disarm immediately, so that Ivory Coast can be reunited and return to peace. Last week, Ivorian Prime Minister Seydou Diarra said disarmament would begin March eighth with the preparation of sites throughout the country.

The conflicting views on disarmament between the rebels and the government come as the U.N. Security Council is expected on Friday to approve a force of six thousand U.N. peacekeepers for Ivory Coast. Diplomats from France and U.N. officials have been lobbying for several months to get this force approved, so that progress can be made in the stalled Ivorian peace process.

Four thousand troops from the former colonial power, France, have prevented renewed fighting in Ivory Coast since last year, but there have been reports that both the army and the rebels have been re-arming themselves since then.