Political storm clouds gather, but frontline remains quiet

The UN-led committee which monitors the peace process in Cote d'Ivoire, held a crisis meeting on Wednesday night, 24 hours after rebels occupying the north of the country announced that they were suspending their participation in a broad-based government of national reconciliation and putting on hold plans to disarm.

Military sources said the rebel decision had not resulted in any increase in tension along the frontline, where 5,300 French and West African peace-keeping troops are deployed to keep the two sides apart.

The government army closed the main road leading to the rebel capital Bouake to northbound traffic for a few hours, but it was reopened later, they added.

The rebels said on Tuesday they were withdrawing their nine ministers from the broad-based coalition government of independent Prime Minister Seydou Diarra because President Laurent Gbagbo had not delegated to it the powers agreed in a French-brokered peace agreement signed in January.

Gbagbo replied with a stream of insults against both Diarra's government and the rebels. Hardline "Young Patriot" vigilante groups which support the president called demonstrations against the rebels in Abidjan next week.

Gbagbo, whose Ivorian Popular Front (FPI) party has seven seats in Diarra's cabinet, said the nine rebel ministers would not be missed. He said in remarks televised on Tuesday night: "We have a team of 40 people, but there are only five or six or at the most 10 ministers who really work and make the government move forward."

He went on to compare the rebels, who have occupied the northern half of Cote d'Ivoire since civil war broke out in September last year, to houseboys living in their master's house and abusing his property.

But despite this war of words, diplomats and senior military officers in the peacekeeping force said they thought the rebels were simply making a political point.

In particular, they said, the rebels wanted the international community to press Gbagbo to let Diarra's government have more authority. They also wanted to put pressure on donors to provide more generous support for rebel fighters when they eventually lay down their guns.

"We think it's posturing, but we could be wrong," one senior military observer of the peace process said. "I think they are on the hook. I can't see them leaving. I would be very surprised if they did."

"This is a political problem rather than a military one and we need to come up with a political solution to it," he told IRIN.

A senior officer in the French peacekeeping force agreed. "This situation of blockage should not last more than a week," he predicted.

Military sources highlighted the fact that command and control structures within the rebel forces were very weak and senior commanders often found it virtually impossible to make warlords controlling particular regions follow their instructions. The rebel leaders therefore needed stronger incentives to persuade their recalcitrant field commanders to disarm and allow the government to restore its rule to the rebel-held north, they added.