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Thousands of Ivory Coast Rebels Rally in Support of Defiant Leader - 2004-04-26

Rebels in Ivory Coast have held a rally in the north, saying they no longer want contact with the government of President Laurent Gbagbo.

In the rebel controlled northern city of Korhogo, drums and a crowd estimated by local reporters at about 10,000 people greeted the defiant rebel leader Guillaume Soro as he thanked all his supporters.

Mr. Soro said his rebel group has found diamonds and gold in the north to finance salaries for its fighters and provide basic services for civilians. He called for teachers, doctors, and business leaders to come back to the north, where he says the situation is stable.

Mr. Soro accused the government of trying to convince the northerners not to return home. Many people fled the fighting during the rebellion a year and a half ago.

The rebel leader also said rebels would set up a police force and border posts with neighboring countries. To conclude his speech, Mr. Soro took a defiant tone. He said the rebels will not rejoin the power-sharing government, will not disarm and will not accept elections in 2005 as long as Mr. Gbagbo is in power.

Ivorian opposition leaders were trying to meet with Mr. Soro in the rebel-controlled north, but decided not to travel after French soldiers turned down their request for an escort. They said they are still hoping to meet with Mr. Soro later in the week.

The opposition held a rally Saturday in Abidjan. About 10,000 people came out to honor those killed by government forces during an aborted protest march last month. Newly-deployed United Nations peacekeepers ensured security.

On Sunday, it was a somewhat larger crowd led by militants close to President Laurent Gbagbo, known as Young Patriots.

Protesters called on the United Nations to disarm rebels immediately.

The Young Patriots leader, Charles Ble Goude, asked the United Nations to provide security for a rally the group is planning next month in the main rebel-held city, Bouake.

Another speaker, a senior militant of the ruling party, called on Young Patriots to begin kidnapping white people if U.N. peacekeepers and French soldiers fail to disarm the rebels. The peace deal also calls for disarming new army recruits and militias close to Mr. Gbagbo, as well as expanding rights to many northerners now treated as second-class citizens.

The accord has been stalled since its signature 16 months ago by political wrangling and recurring boycotts of the national unity government by the opposition and the rebels.