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Ivory Coast, rebels agree to disarm

ABIDJAN, Ivory Coast -- The government and rebels agreed yesterday to start a crucial and long-awaited disarmament in mid-December as President Laurent Gbagbo announced that he would visit the rebel stronghold in the north of the West African nation.

A joint statement issued after a day of talks in the capital, Yamoussoukro, said rebel and government units would begin withdrawing today from a cease-fire line patrolled by 4,000 French and 1,200 West African peacekeepers. The buffer zone divides the rebel-held north from the government-held south.

The announcement that the disarmament would begin Dec. 15 was made amid a recent increase in calls for war by supporters of the president.

"I asked the prime minister to do everything possible to see to it that all of the text of Marcoussis be implemented as soon as possible," Gbagbo said in Yamoussoukro, referring to a peace deal brokered in France last January.

He said he would go to Bouake, where the northern rebels are based, to announce the end of the war. The president did not set a date for the visit but said it would come before he makes a state visit to France on Dec. 16.

Under the disarmament program, both sides would pull back from front lines and rebel soldiers would be integrated into the national army or given vocational training to start new jobs.

Despite the peace agreement, Ivory Coast has remained divided and tense since a failed coup attempt in September 2002 launched the country into a nine-month civil war.

The United Nations Security Council yesterday welcomed the president's statements and called on all parties "to refrain from any action that might jeopardize observance of the cease-fire and implementation" of the peace agreement. The council reiterated that "it is absolutely essential" for the parties to expedite implementation of a French-brokered peace agreement.

On his return to Abidjan, Gbagbo addressed a crowd of protesters outside the main French military base on the city's eastern outskirts, telling them to return home and end four days of demonstrations that saw unwieldy mobs hurl stones at French troops, who fired back with tear gas.

"We have struggled; we have won," Gbagbo told the 1,500-strong crowd. "Go home."

Youth leader Ble Goude, a close ally of Gbagbo, called the protests to demand that French peacekeepers clear away from the cease-fire line so that government troops could take back rebel territory and unify the country.

Barring that, Goude said he wanted to see the rebels give up their weapons. "All we want is to see the rebels disarmed so we can free our country," he said.

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