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Ivory Coast’s North, South Still at Odds

August 31, 2003

BOUAKE, Ivory Coast (AP) _ On paper, Ivory Coast’s war is over _ peace declared in West Africa’s economic hub nearly two months ago, and rebels and loyalists united in a power-sharing government.

On the ground, armored vehicles are on the roll again through the commercial capital, Abidjan.

With fears of a new conflict on the rise, fighter jets roared over the city’s lagoons and skyscrapers last week as security forces rounded up scores of people suspected in an alleged plot to assassinate President Laurent Gbagbo.

As for unity _ 10 newly erected iron gates, bolted shut and guarded by armed rebels, block the main road that had linked this prosperous country’s north, now rebel-held, to the south, the base of the government.

Eight feet high, the gates formalize and fortify the split in divided Ivory Coast.

``It’s still a front-line, and we can guard it as we see fit,″ rebel spokesman Sidiki Konate insisted in Bouake, Ivory Coast’s second city and de facto capital of insurgent territory.

``As for me, I’d prefer to guard it with our soldiers and iron gates. It’s more secure that way,″ Konate added.

On July 4, Gbagbo shed tears at a ceremony marking the official end of nine months of civil war _ raising hopes that years of instability in the world’s top cocoa producer might be over.

But signatures and handshakes have since given way to angry words, surging rumors of new uprisings, and heightened military measures, as each side appears to brace for any return to conflict.

A French-brokered peace accord in January laid the groundwork for the war’s end, outlining a disarmament plan and setting up a power-sharing government to guide the former French colony to presidential elections in 2005.

France contributed 4,000 peacekeepers, which proved vital to stopping fighting.

Ivory Coast, with its cocoa wealth and a key port, had been West Africa’s single-most stable and economically developed nation until a shattering 1999 coup. Years of new uprisings, plots and escalating political, ethnic and regional hatreds followed.

Rebels, who started the civil war in September with a failed coup attempt against Gbagbo, have suspended participation in the new power-sharing government.

Insurgents are demanding the right to approve candidates for the key ministry posts of defense and security.

They accuse Gbagbo of arming civilian militias to torment northerners living in the government-controlled south. Accusations are widespread of massive weapons shipments to rearm the government side for a return to fighting.

Gbagbo loyalists, meanwhile, demand the insurgents lay down their weapons and yield control of the northern half of the country.

They allege rebels have sneaked into Abidjan, hiding out and waiting for the right moment to strike.

Last week, authorities in France arrested at least 13 suspects who allegedly were on their way to Abidjan to carry out what Ivory Coast officials claim was a plot to attack Gbagbo’s motorcade with a rocket launcher.

That was followed by a roundup in Abidjan.

Those detained included members of Gbagbo’s own guard and northerners, who like millions of regional migrants working in Ivory Coast, have long been viewed with suspicion by the southern-based government.

``It’s making all us foreigners tired,″ said Oumar Taherou, 40, who is from Niger and sells plastic sandals on the Abidjan streets.

``This country is rotten and everyone’s afraid. I watch with my eyes and try to keep my mouth shut.″

In Abidjan, the warning signs of trouble are everywhere _ familiar to all now in the jittery city. Soldiers and paramilitary police _ helmeted, heavily armed and tear gas in-hand _ have been patrolling in greater numbers and checkpoints have multiplied.

Armored personnel carriers patrol the streets, and warplanes scream overhead in what is widely seen as a show of force by the government.

At rebel-held Bouake, 210 miles to the north, the scene is far calmer _ after passing through the iron gates, that is.

Rebel rule is settling in at the city, after the immediate aftermath of the fighting left it littered with burned-out cars, patrolled by trigger-happy rebels, and nearly paralyzed by a destroyed transportation system.

The market, full of bounties of yams, rice and other foodstuffs, is in full swing.

Children don their uniforms and march off to schools re-opened with the help of locals and aid groups. Roadblocks in the city are few and far between.

Support for the rebellion appears enthusiastic and overwhelming.

A rally last week drew tens of thousands shouting for Gbagbo to step down.

``I’m with the rebellion, Gbagbo’s got to leave,″ said Ali Balde, 28, at his shoe stand in the market. ``Give us our ministers or the war will start again.″

As calm as life in Bouake might be, the front-line is still volatile and tense.

``I’m the boss here, and you’ll do what I tell you,″ shouted one rebel fighter, pistol at his side, as he stopped vehicles heading deeper into Ivory Coast’s rebel-held north.

Fearing surprise attacks by government forces, rebels consult by telephone with superiors each time before swinging open the eight-foot-high gates to let through a car.

Several miles to the south, government soldiers man sandbag bunkers _ their AK-47s and grenade launchers trained north.

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