President Laurent Gbagbo has dismissed three opposition ministers from Cote d'Ivoire's broad-based government of national reconciliation, including Guillaume Soro, the leader of rebel forces occupying the north of the country.
This radical move was announced on Wednesday night in a presidential decree read out on state television after Gbagbo had left to attend a mini-summit of five West African leaders in the Guinean capital Conakry.
Soro, who held the post of Communications Minister, reacted by accusing the president of launching a "coup d'etat" to completely wreck the faltering peace agreement signed in January 2003.
Speaking from the rebel capital Bouake in central Cote d'Ivoire, Soro told Radio France Internationale in a telephone interview there could be no lasting peace in the country while Gbagbo remained head of state.
The rebel leader said Gbagbo's departure from office had now become a "sine qua non" for the reunification of the divided country and the holding of fresh elections.
Diplomatic sources said the president's hardline action put further pressure on Prime Minister Seydou Diarra to resign, but the international community was desperately trying to persuade him to stay on to prevent the entire peace process from collapsing.
"Everything is in jeopardy”, an African diplomat said.
“If he goes along (with the president's decision) he will lose credibility with the opposition and the international community. If he doesn’t, he must engage in an arm wrestling match with Gbagbo. If he resigns he will have also disappointed the international community.”
Several political sources told IRIN Diarra had already written his letter of resignation, but had so far been dissuaded from presenting it.
Citing Diarra’s well-known personal integrity, diplomats said that if the prime minister did decide to quit, he would not do so before Friday, when Gbagbo returns from the Mano River Union summit in Guinea.
“If he stays, it will depend on what guarantees he receives from the international community”, the African diplomat said.
Diarra is a former civil servant and political independent who was appointed in March 2003 to head a power-sharing government that included Gbagbo's Ivorian Popular Front (FPI) party, the opposition parties represented in parliament and Soro's "New Forces" rebel movement.
However, his authority has been repeatedly undermined by Gbagbo. The president has often chosen to exercise the extensive executive powers granted to him by the consitution in instances where these allow him to ignore the letter and the spirit of the French-brokered Marcoussis peace agreement.
The prime minister's position became even more difficult in March after the 26 opposition ministers in his 41-member cabinet walked out following the violent repression of an opposition demonstration in Abidjan by the security forces and shadowyl militia groups loyal to Gbagbo.
An investigation into the bloodshed by a UN panel of human rights experts, concluded that at least 120 people died in two days of indiscriminate killing of innocent civilians. The UN investigators said orders for this deliberate action came from "the highest authorities of the state".
Following a two-month stand-off with the opposition, Gbagbo reacted on Tuesday with a tough speech in which he lambasted the opposition for abandoning its responsibilities in the coalition government.
Gbagbo announced that he was stopping the salaries of all those ministers who were continuing to boycott the cabinet and was withdrawing their official cars and their right to stay in a posh hotel in Abidjan guarded by UN peacekeepers.
In the same televised speech Gbagbo also demanded that Diarra replace several members of his cabinet.
The Prime Minister's office maintained public silence on the president's outburst and 24 hours later the presidency announced that Gbagbo had sacked Soro, Public Works Minister Patrick Achi and Youssouff Soumahoro, the Minister for Technical and Vocational Education.
Gbagbo has had several run-ins with Soro and last year thwarted his attempts to appoint new directors of state radio and television.
The president has also had sharp differences with Achi, a member of the Democratic Party of Cote d'Ivoire (PDCI), the largest opposition party in parliament.
Earlier this year, he overode Achi's authority to award a contract to manage the container terminal in the port of Abidjan to the French company Bollore without holding a public tender. The PDCI walked out of government in early March in protest at Gbagbo's high-handed action.
Soumahoro, the third minister sacked, is, like Soro, is a member of the rebel movement which has occupied the northern half of Cote d'Ivoire since civil war broke out in September 2002.
Some political analysts in Cote d'Ivoire have speculated that Gbagbo's decision to get tough with the opposition is a deliberate move to push Diarra into resigning. In place of the three sacked ministers, the president has appointed three acting ministers from his own FPI party.
“What is he (Diarra) supposed to do? He [Gbagbo] has really boxed him in,” said one exasperated UN official.