Gbagbo's party urges independent prime minister to quit

A leading member of President Laurent Gbagbo's Ivorian Popular Front (FPI) party has urged Cote d'Ivoire's independent prime minister, Seydou Diarra, to resign, following the refusal of rebel forces to start disarming on 15 October as planned.

Former prime minister Pascal Affi N'Guessan, the president of FPI, told Diarra to quit at a press conference on Saturday.

He said the broad-based government of national reconciliation headed by Diarra should be dissolved because it had shown "no concern whatsoever" at the rebels' failure to disarm.

Affi N'Guessan also urged the country to prepare for a possible resumption of war against rebels who have occupied the north since a civil war broke out two years ago.

The FPI and its allies "demand that the consensus prime minister, Mr Seydou Elimane Diarra, show courage and dignity by resigning from his post without delay," Affi N'Guessan said.

At the same time, he called on Gbagbo to appoint a new "Government of National Safeguard". Affi N'Guessan told IRIN on Monday that this would be "a government comprised of patriots who will fight for national integrity and reconciliation".

In his statement on Saturday, the FPI leader urged Gbagbo to "mobilise all political, diplomatic and military means with a view to liberating the occupied zones and restoring....the authority of the state."

Asked whether this meant that he favoured a military solution to the current crisis, Affi N'Guessan told IRIN "All means are good. A military solution is one possibility."

The rebels and opposition parties in parliament immediately rejected Affi N'Guessan's statement and accused him of winding up further an already tense political situation..

"It only adds fuel to the fire," said Alphonse Djedje-Mady, the official spokesman of the G7 alliance of opposition parties and the New Forces rebel movement. "That is not what we need for peace," he added.

Diplomats say Affi N'Guessan, who was prime minister from 2000 until March 2003, is a close confidant of Gbagbo who often voices harder line views that the president himself cares to express.

Gbagbo himself has not so far made any comments on Affi N'Guessan's latest outburst. Neither has he made any move to sack Diarra, who is regarded by the international community as the lynchpin of Cote d'Ivoire's flagging peace process.

"They are testing the waters," said one unversity professor in Abidjan. But he added that Affi N'Guessan was undoubtedly voicing a widely held opinion within the president's own party.

Diplomats trying desperately to prevent Cote d'Ivoire from sliding back into conflict have been left guessing just how seriously Gbagbo may be trying to get rid of his prime minister.

Such a move would imply a major departure from the French-brokered Linas-Marcoussis peace agreement, which has so far been the blueprint used to lead the country out of crisis.

France, the former colonial power in Cote d'Ivoire, which has 4,000 peacekeeping troops in the country, publicly expressed support for the embattled prime minister on Monday.

"We continue to give our support to the prime minister of national reconciliation," a foreign ministry spokesman in Paris told the French news agency AFP. He reiterated that the Marcoussis peace agreement, signed in January 2003, was the only basis for resolving the crisis and leading Cote d'Ivoire to elections next year.

Significantly, there was no immediate follow-up to Affi N'Guessan's remarks from the Young Patriots, the pro-Gbagbo militia-style youth groups that have frequently attacked suspected rebel sympathisers in the south of Cote d'Ivoire and demanded a military offensive to reconquer the north.

Charles Ble Goude, the leader of the Young Patriots, has been lying low for several days. Pro-government newspapers quoted him as saying over the weekend that he was in hospital recovering from an undisclosed illness.

The prime minister's office appealed for calm. It said in a brief statement that Diarra would conduct consultations over the coming days with all the signatories of the Marcoussis peace accord and the Accra Three agreement of July 30 which was supposed to put Marcoussis back on the rails.

He would then issue "an important declaration on the socio-political situation," the statement said.

The Marcoussis agreement appointed Diarra, a politically neutral former civil servant, as the leader of a power-sharing government that includes members of the FPI, the parliamentary opposition and the New Forces rebel movement.

His administration is charged with implementing political reforms, supervising the disarmament of rebel forces and preparing Cote d'Ivoire for fresh presidential elections in October 2005.

However, Gbagbo and the FPI have consistently dragged their feet over the implementation of the political reforms.

And the rebels have responded by repeatedly ignoring a series of target dates for them to start handing over their weapons to a 6,000-strong UN peacekeeping force.

The latest of these target dates - 15 October - was enshrined in the Accra Three agreement.

According to Accra Three, all the reforms demanded by the Marcoussis peace accord, should have been on the statute book by the end of September - a fortnight before the first rebel handed over his gun.

But the only positive outcome of the Ghana summit so far has been the return of the rebels and the opposition parties to Cote d'Ivoire's government of national reconciliation.

This was set up in April 2003, but Gbagbo has repeatedly ridden roughshod over the authority of Diarra and his cabinet, provoking the wrath of the opposition parties and the rebel movement.

All 27 ministers representing the rebels and the opposition parties, pulled out in March following the bloody repression of a banned opposition demonstration in Abidjan.

Diplomats said Gbagbo's decision to sack three of these ministers in May pushed Diarra himself to verge of resignation.

Under the terms of the Accra Three agreement, all three ministers were restored to their posts.

Rebel leader Guillaume Soro told IRIN last week that he would never lead Cote d'Ivoire back into conflict, but would simply continue governing the northern half of the country until Gbagbo was ready to do a genuine deal.

But following Affi N'Guessan's demand for the removal of Diarra as prime minister, rebel spokesman Sidiki Konate accused Gbagbo's right-hand man of putting the country back on a war footing.

"Affi N'Guessan has just staged a coup against all the peace accords we signed in Paris and Accra. He has just put an end to the peace progess," Konate told Radio France Internationale on Sunday.

That might be overstating the situation, but political analysts warned on Monday that there was not much time left to prevent West Africa's most prosperous country from slipping into chaos.

"The government needs to understand that time is not on its side," the university professor said. "As we move closer to October 2005 we are running out of solutions, particularly peaceful ones."