- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 2, 2005

ABIDJAN, Ivory Coast

Just weeks after war-torn Ivory Coast qualified for its first-ever World Cup soccer tournament, setting off massive nationwide celebrations, residents face the sobering possibility of a slide back into civil war.

President Laurent Gbagbo’s five-year term, due to end last Sunday, was extended for a year after the United Nations endorsed an African Union vote to postpone new presidential elections in the world’s top cocoa producer.

Opposition leaders threatened to call supporters into the streets to protest, while aggressive, pro-Gbagbo gangs known as “Young Patriots” said they would rally and secure the capital.

“Ivory Coast is still at war … Gbagbo is our president, and we will stand behind him no matter what,” said Marc, 22, a Young Patriot.

Abidjan has a combustible mix of ethnic groups with roots in the north, where rebel forces have held sway for three years, and a support base of southerners loyal to the Gbagbo government.

Local business owners dread a repeat of violent riots that devastated parts of this seaside commercial capital last year. The official capital, Yamoussoukro, lies inland and to the north.

“It’s been calm here for a while, but things are going to shake again,” said Draman, 28, a cafe owner. “I’m expecting the worst.”

Despite the presence of more than 10,000 French and U.N. peacekeepers who monitor the buffer zone that divides the country, continued bouts of unrest, political bickering and a failed disarmament combined to scuttle elections scheduled for Oct. 30.

The date had been agreed on by the government and rebels in a 2003 peace agreement after New Forces rebels seized the north of the country.

The African Union recommended last month that Mr. Gbagbo’s mandate be extended for another year until nationwide elections could be held to end the crisis. New Forces rebels and heads of the four-party political-opposition bloc flatly rejected the AU transition plan and demanded a neutral leader.

Rebel leader Guillaume Soro said that after Oct. 30, he would no longer recognize Mr. Gbagbo’s legitimacy. But the U.N. Security Council voted to endorse the AU plan, allowing Mr. Gbagbo to remain head of state with limited powers on condition he choose a prime minister acceptable to all parties.

Based on reports that rebel leaders might accept the AU decision provided the new prime minister has full executive powers, some observers remain optimistic the peace will hold.

U.N. special envoy Pierre Schori, however, expressed doubts after the Security Council vote. “There is too much anxiety and fear in the air and too many Kalashnikovs in the streets,” he said.

“Rampant insecurity seems to be the order of the day. This results from continued violations of human rights.”

A new U.N. study says disappearances, summary executions and vigilante groups operating with impunity in the north and south threaten to worsen the crisis in Ivory Coast. Simon Munzu, head of the human rights division of the U.N. mission, said ethnic clashes in the lawless western provinces are complicating peace efforts.

Dozens of villagers were killed in June during bouts of fighting in rural communes near the city of Duekoue.

Such outbreaks bear the imprint of political influence from both sides, according to Mr. Munzu. Bloodshed in the former French colony has not been restricted to the country’s five African ethnic groups. Anti-French sentiment exploded throughout the country after Paris was seen as playing rebel and government forces against one another to reassert its hold on its long-time client state.

Tensions came to a head last November when France destroyed the Ivory Coast’s small air force after Ivoirian jets killed nine French troops during bombing raids in the north. In Abidjan, once a model of stability in West Africa, French residents have been brutally attacked in the shadows of aging skyscrapers.

Mobs have also ransacked homes and burned down schools, causing an estimated 8,000 French residents to shut down businesses central to a once-thriving economy and flee the country.

An October report published by the International Crisis Group, a Brussels-based think tank, said that if bold steps were not taken by the United Nations to end the bloodshed, Ivory Coast could be headed for years of ethnic fighting such as in Liberia and Sierra Leone.

“Peace will require diplomatic pressure and intrusive measures aimed at making the actors follow through on their promises, something they have shown little desire to do so far,” said Mike McGovern, the ICG’s West Africa project director.

The report said the United Nations should impose step-by-step sanctions to enforce compliance with the peace effort over the next 12 months, and proposed giving the African Union the right to dissolve and appoint a government if presidential elections are not held within a year.

Liberia, which held elections Oct. 11 after a two-year transition from successive civil wars that killed more than 250,000 people, was cited as evidence that Ivory Coast and the international community must seize any “window of opportunity for durable peace.” Although it is uncertain World Cup fever will trump politics for long, the staccato music of car horns still rings out across Abidjan.

“Today, we are not at war; we are one,” said Tangara Traore, 20, a young barber who spent his day off celebrating his country’s selection for the World Cup soccer tournament in the streets of the low-income Treichville district, wrapped in orange, green and white — the national colors.

“The victory has allowed us to forget our problems for a while,” said Mr. Traore. “But I don’t know how long the party will last.”

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