Rebel ministers withdraw from government

The rebel movement in Cote d'Ivoire suspended its participation in the country's broad-based coalition government on Tuesday and delayed the start of a disarmament programme, accusing President Laurent Gbagbo of obstructing the peace process.

Rebel leaders announced the radical move following a two-day meeting in the central city of Bouake and warned there was a real danger that hostilities could resume.

They accused Gbagbo of failing to give the broad-based government of national reconciliation, headed by independent prime minister Seydou Diarra, the full powers it was supposed to enjoy under the terms of a French-brokered peace agreement signed in January.

Rebel spokesman Guillaume Soro said in a statement: "By denying the prime minister and ministers of government of national reconciliation the rights accorded to them under the [peace] agreement....Laurent Gbagbo has derailed the agreement and rendered it null and void."

He added: "In the face of manifest over-arming [by Gbagbo's armed forces[, the flourishing of tribal militia groups with paramilitary training and the obvious weakness of the international community, there is a patent risk of fresh conflict erupting."

There are nine rebel ministers in the broad-based government of national reconciliation headed by Prime Minister Seydou Diarra. But none of them enjoy any real authority in the ministries they are supposed to control. And eight months after the signing of a peace agreement, their distrust of Gbagbo still runs deep.

One European diplomat in Abidjan remarked: "I think one of the major problems is that they don't really trust each other. There has been no real reconciliation, there is an awful lot of underlying suspicion between them."

However, she and other diplomats said the rebels' decision to withdraw from government - at least temporarily - also reflected divisions within the rebels' ranks over the question of disarmament.

The rebels are under pressure to demobilise and hand in their guns so that the government can restore its rule to the northern half of Cote d'Ivoire. This has been under rebel control since a failed coup on 19 September last year threw the country into civil war.

However, diplomats said many rebels' military commanders, including a notoriously independent warlord who controls the northern city of Korhogo, appeared reluctant to disarm.

A senior African diplomat warned that if the impasse between Gbagbo and the rebels persisted, the French-brokered peace agreement signed in January could break down completely.

He noted that close colleagues of the president were already dropping public hints that should Diarra fail to keep his broad-based government together, a new administration led by Gbagbo's Ivorian Popular Front (FPI) might be appointed which would try once more to defeat the rebels by force.

The conflict resulted from efforts by a series of Ivorian governments to limit the political and land ownership rights of immigrants from other West African countries. Together with their children born in Cote d'Ivoire, they account for 30 percent of the country's 16 million population.

These discriminatory measures led to Alassane Ouattara, a former prime minister, being barred from running in the 2000 presidential election, on the grounds that he was really a citizen of Burkina Faso. The election was won by Gbagbo.

The outbreak of civil war unleashed the active persecution of immigrants and people from the mainly Muslim north of Cote d'Ivoire by pro-Gbagbo militants, forcing more than half a million to flee to Burkina Faso, Mali and Guinea.

The United Nations estimates that a further 750,000 people were displaced from their homes within Cote d'Ivoire by fear of reprisals against them by both presidential and rebel forces.

Following the January peace agreement, which Gbagbo accepted with some reluctance, the rebel Patriotic Movement of Cote d'Ivoire (MPCI) and two smaller rebel groups took up their seats in Diarra's coalition government in April.

The rebels, who are now officially known as "The New Forces," were due to have begun a process of demobilisation and disarmament on 1 August. This would have allowed the government to restore its administration to the entire country and reopen closed schools, hospitals and banks.

However, the start of disarmament was held up pending the passage of an amnesty law and the appointment of ministers to the vacant portfolios of defence and internal security.

The amnesty law, which paved the way for members of the security forces who had joined the rebels to return to their units, was approved by parliament on 6 August.

And on 13 September Gbagbo finally appointed Martin Bleou, a law professor and human rights activist, as minister of internal security, and Rene Amani, a former head of the government's cocoa board as defence minister. The president chose these two men from list of four candidates proposed by the prime minister.

That should have cleared the way for disarmament to begin. However, the rebels objected loudly to what they called the "arbitrary" way in which Gbagbo had imposed the new ministers without seeking a broad consensus.

Following the appointment of the new ministers, Albert Tevoedjre, the Special Representative of the UN Secretary General in Cote d'Ivoire, said he hoped that disarmament could on 1 October. This now looks unlikely.

Diplomats said it was difficult to see a way out of the present impasse since neither the rebels nor Gbagbo were likely to back down easily. "Someone needs to bang their heads together," the European diplomat said.

However, one person who might have done that, French Defence Minister Michele Alliot-Marie, who controls 4,000 French peacekeeping troops in Cote d'Ivoire, held talks with government and rebel leaders last week without being able to defuse the impending crisis.

Hopes were pinned on the rebel ministers agreeing to return to the cabinet after a few days of protest. "I think they may be just upping the ante to push things as far as they can," one diplomat said. "I find it difficult to believe that they are going to hand in the keys of their offices and ministerial cars."