Question mark hangs over disarmament - again

Government soldiers have recaptured a town near Abidjan which was occupied by unidentified attackers at the weekend, but rebels controlling the north of Cote d'Ivoire raised fresh doubts on Monday about their willingness to disarm ahead of elections planned for October.

Militant supporters of President Laurent Gbagbo, known as the Young Patriots reacted to the attack on Agboville, 80 km north of Abidjan by vowing to prevent opposition parties from staging any further demonstrations in government-held territory.

On Monday, groups of Young Patriots once more began seizing opposition newspapers from news stands in the capital and burning them.

The armed forces said in a statement broadcast on state television that they had recaptured Agboville on Sunday night and were conducting mopping up operations in the surrounding countryside.

A military source told IRIN that the mystery attackers had broken into the town jail and released all 217 prisoners inside.

As the peace process aimed at ending Cote d'Ivoire's three-year-old civil war teetered once more on the brink of collapse, the G7 alliance of rebels and parliamentary opposition parties announced that it was delaying until Wednesday a statement on whether the latest batch of political reforms enacted by Gbagbo were sufficient for it to take part in a presidential election due on 30 October.

But Guillaume Soro, the leader of the New Forces rebel movement, said plainly that the reforms, which were a pre-condition for disarmament, fell short of what was required.

Soro told a press conference in the rebel capital Bouake that five of the seven reforms promulgated by President Gbagbo by decree on 15 July were just a watered down version of what had been agreed in a 2003 peace agreement and subsequently endorsed by President Thabo Mbeki of South Africa, the African Union mediator in the Ivorian conflict.

Soro also complained that the reforms should have been approved by parliament instead of being issued by presidential decree.

"The New Forces have expressed serious doubt about the head of state's use of article 48 of the constitution to adopt the legislative reforms. It is parliament which should have done this work," Soro said.

"Laurent Gbagbo has swindled the mediator on all seven laws," the rebel leader he added. "There are only two which have been adopted in accordance with the spirit and letter of Linas Marcoussis (the 2003 peace agreement)."

Soro said he would be taking up this issue with Mbeki.

He also denied that the rebel movement had anything to do with the attack on Agboville. This was preceded by an attack on two police posts on the outskirts of Abidjan, during which nine people died and a large quantity of arms were siezed.

"These events are a series of comedies that have been poorly strung together," Soro said. "I don't think the New Forces have anything to do with this," he added, suggesting that it was simply a diversion mounted by Gbagbo to discredit the rebels.

"The international community should be vigilant as to which side is not applying the (peace) accords and should punish it," Soro said.

He did not comment directly on the disarmament process, which once more appears in danger of further postponement.

The New Forces are due to begin sending 40,500 fighters to cantonments sites on Sunday. Once assembled there, they are due to surrender their weapons to UN peacekeepers between 26 September and 3 October.

The UN Operation in Cote d'Ivoire, which is known by its French acronym ONUCI, said in a statement on Monday night that it had deployed military units from the 6,000-strong UN peacekeeping force into Agboville "to help restore calm and secure the population."

ONUCI urged the government security forces to protect civilians and called on all parties in Cote d'Ivoire to "exercise restaraint and to avoid acts or calls to violence" during what it called "this sensitive juncture" in the peace process.

However, speaking at a rally in Abidjan on Monday, Charles Ble Goude, the charismatic leader of the Young Patriots movement, returned to the fiery rhetoric which has made him famous over the past three years.

He accused the G7 opposition alliance of organising the weekend attacks on the Abidjan suburb of Anyama and the town of Agboville and pledged to prevent the opposition from holding any further meetings and activities in the government controlled south.

He also promised to silence the opposition voice in the media.

“As of this moment, meetings and activities of all the formations of G7 are formally prohibited,” he said. “We ask the television stations of Cote d’Ivoire to make sure that no G7 material is broadcast in the country.”

Shortly afterwards, Young Patriots began burning opposition newspapers at news stands.

The G7 "energetically condemned" the weekend attacks at a press conference and called for an investigation to find out who was behind them.

However, G7 coordinator Alphonse Djedje Mady implicitly pointed a finger at Gbagbo, who has been absent on holiday.

"The G7 deplores that every time Cote d'Ivoire approaches peace, new dramatic events occur to block the agreed efforts and that curiously these occur in the absence of the head of state."