Ministers to meet in rebel capital on Thursday

Cote d'Ivoire's government of national reconciliation will hold a ministerial meeting in the rebel capital Bouake this week in a further move to ease tension between the government-controlled south and the rebel-held north of the country, a senior government official said on Monday.

The meeting, which would probably take place on Tuesday or Wednesday and would be chaired by prime minister Seydou Diarra, the official told IRIN. It would prepare the ground for a meeting of the full cabinet in Cote d'Ivoire's commercial capital Abidjan, which has been pencilled in for Thursday, he added.

This would be the first ever visit by a top-level government delegation to Bouake since Cote d'Ivoire's second largest city, fell to the Patriotic Movement of Cote d'Ivoire (MPCI) rebel movement eight months ago and became its headquarters.

Meanwhile, a high-level Ivorian delegation, led by transport minister Anaky Kobenan, flew to Ouagadougou on Monday to discuss reopening trade routes to Burkina Faso. The landlocked country normally relies on the Ivorian port of Abidjan to handle 70 percent of its imports and exports, but has been forced to use ports in Ghana and Togo instead since a civil war erupted in Cote d'Ivoire last September, dividing the country in two.

The Ivorian delegation included Thiam Aziz the chief executive of SITARAIL, the French-owned railway which links Abidjan with Ouagadougou and carries most of the freight between the two countries. SITARAIL ran an inspection train up as far as the Burkinabe border last week and Aziz announced on its return that normal traffic to Burkina Faso should resume by the end of May.

The UN Special Representative in Cote d'Ivoire, Albert Tevoedjre, said on Monday that a meeting would be held in Ghana later this week to approve the deployment of more French and West African peacekeeping troops to the troubled west of Cote d'Ivoire.

Bands of armed men have been continuing to raid villages and kill civilians in Cote d'Ivoire's "Wild West" inspite of a ceasefire between government and rebel forces, which has been holding well for the past two weeks everywhere else in the country.
Diplomats in Abidjan and relief workers in the west blame poorly disciplined Liberian fighters, recruited by both the government and rebels, for much of this lawlessness.

Relief workers based in Abidjan confirmed reports of fighting in the rebel-held western city of Man at the weekend. They said there had been an attempt by one faction of the small Movement for Justice and Peace (MJP) which controls the area, to free 180 Liberian fighters being held prisoner at the jail there. The attempt to free these mercenaries, who had been detained in an effort to curb lawlessness in the area, was unsuccessful, they added.

Tevoedjre said government and rebel military leaders and representatives of the French and West African peacekeeping forces would fly to Accra "within the next 48 hours" to discuss the deployment of more peace-keepers to the west of Cote d'Ivoire at a meeting with Ghanaian President John Kufuor, the current chairman of Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS).

France has about 4,000 peacekeepers in Cote d'Ivoire, while ECOWAS has deployed a further 1,200 troops from Ghana, Togo, Benin, Niger and Senegal in the former French colony. Ivorian President Laurent Gbagbo gave his blessing at the weekend for the peacekeepers to boost their presence in the West along the border with strife-torn Liberia. The Accra meeting is expected to finalise the numbers that will be sent there.

Gbagbo meanwhile gave his official seal of approval at the weekend to a series of recently formed "patriotic youth" organisations, which diplomats fear could turn into armed militias capable of unleashing a wave of ethnic killings against immigrants accused of sympathising with the rebel cause. Immigrants from other West African countries and their offspring account for 30 percent of Cote d'Ivoire's 16 million population.

Gbagbo met the leaders of 25 of the 26 youth organisations at the presidential palace on Sunday. He told them that so long as they did not take up arms they should not be discouraged or considered illegal, simply because they took a hard line against the rebels.

Charles Ble Goude, the coordinator of these movements, which claim to have 12,000 members, has recently been seen in Abidjan protected by four armed policemen.