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Western Ivory Coast Militia On Guard for Renewed War - 2004-07-21

An ethnic-based militia in western Ivory Coast has threatened to attack rebel positions if the rebels are not quickly disarmed. The militia has acted with total impunity since helping defend the region against rebel attacks. The militia also wears the same uniforms as the regular army, creating confusion among the local population.

Several dozen armed members of the Liberation Movement of the Great West (FLGO) gather at the home of their leader, Maho Glossehi, just across from the city's town hall.

Mr. Glossehi, who is assistant to the mayor, also heads the region's council of village chiefs. Since rebel groups started attacking the western part of the country in November 2002, he became head of the Liberation Movement of the Great West, which he defines as a group of combatants representing the local ethnic We group. He says all chiefs in his tradition must be warriors and must have the courage to stand up to aggression. While rebels moved into the region from the north in late 2002, he says he gathered a force of more than 5,000 youths. This militia then began ambushing rebel fighters, stealing some of their weapons and fighting back. At the time, many Ivorian police and army had fled the area.

The Liberation Movement of the Great West reclaimed some territory in western Ivory Coast and also cut off rebel access to the south. But some western towns previously inhabited by ethnic We remain in rebel hands.

Mr. Glossehi, locally known as the General, says U.N. peacekeepers starting to deploy in the west must speed up rebel disarmament or else, he warns, he will end the rebel occupation himself.

Glossehi supporter Boniface Oulobo says the Liberation Movement of the Great West is an anti-terrorist vigilante movement which, he says, should be seen as supporters of the U.S government anti-terror campaign. "They do not like terrorist acts and they are also supporting what American people are doing. Because they are anti-terrorist, anybody who plans to do [something] terrorist, they go against him," he says. "So they are supporting America for this also. But what they want for all the country and for all Ivorians is for terrorists not to come here and not to spoil the area."

But many residents in the west now feel the Liberation Movement of the Great West has gone too far. Their fighters, wearing the same type of uniforms as the military, can be seen at checkpoints throughout the west, extorting money and harassing people who are from northern-based ethnic groups.

Following a wave of ethnically-motivated crimes in Guiglo in May, militia members now enforce a nighttime curfew.

Burkinabe migrant farmers who live in camps in Guiglo say they are afraid Liberation Movement of the Great West fighters will kill them if they try to go back to their villages close to frontlines.

Cocoa planter Laurent Ouedraogo says if ethnic northerners stay in their villages in the militia-run west, they are assassinated, and those who try to return are killed.

But even those who are not northerners, like Richard Grindet, who is the head of a youth association in Guiglo and a pork breeder, says he has grown tired of the Liberation Movement of the Great West, and wants to see more presence of French peacekeepers, known as Licorne, and of the national army, known by the acronym FANCI. "FLGO stayed there because when the war began, FANCI ran away so we respect FLGO But now we need FANCI and Licorne," says Mr. Grindet. "Because FLGO do not get real education of security, it is many people we take anywhere."

He says the Liberation Movement of the Great West also recruited many Liberian refugees and mercenaries to fight on their side, and that, acting with total impunity, these Liberians looted homes when they were not paid.

Several leading members of President Laurent Gbagbo's political party have been major financial contributors to the Liberation Movement of the Great West, going as far as setting up cooperatives for ethnic We fighters in remote western regions.

This followed apparent grumbling from Ivorian members of the Liberation Movement of the Great West, who say they have not been paid enough. A dozen fighters claiming to have fought in the west recently held a hunger strike in Abidjan demanding payment for their efforts, but Liberation Movement of the Great West leaders denied they were from their own ranks. Others from the group have requested to join the Ivorian army instead, but have been turned down.

Meanwhile, commanders of French forces now helping secure the west until the arrival of U.N. peacekeepers, say the issue of militias is entirely up to the Ivorian army and that much like the local population, they cannot differentiate the militia members from soldiers.