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Last Updated: Wednesday, 18 May 2005, 10:56 GMT 11:56 UK
Ivory Coast's zone of no-confidence
By James Copnall
BBC News, Ivory Coast

Ivory Coast's confidence zone ought to be the safest place in a notably unsafe country.

Dioula refugees
These Dioulas fled their homes after being attacked
The 1,200km-long strip of land is patrolled by heavily armed United Nations and French peacekeepers, who are there to ensure the loyalist army to the south and the former rebel New Forces in the north do not come to blows.

No weapons or Ivorian soldiers are allowed in this band of neutral territory, which runs from the Liberian border in the west, to the frontier with Ghana in the east.

In those circumstances, the people who live in the confidence zone should be able to go about their lives in complete security.

Yet human rights abuses, UN officials admit, are a daily occurrence.

On a recent trip to the central part of the confidence zone, I came across several victims of inter-ethnic conflict.

Houses burned

Members of the northern and Muslim Dioula ethnic group, showed me fresh scars caused by machetes and other agricultural weapons.

Supporters of President Laurent Gbagbo accuse the Dioulas of backing the rebels.

Peacekeepers walk through Raviart
Peacekeepers provide reassurance - when they are present
The Dioulas say they had been chased from their village, Boli, which is not far from the New Forces capital, Bouake.

Yacouba Sakho explained how a squabble between a Dioula youth and a young man from the Christian Baoule ethnic group had turned nasty in Boli.

"They burned our houses, and attacked us. I will never go back," he said.

Mr Sakho has sought refuge in the nearby town of Raviart, where relations between the Baoule and the Dioula are more harmonious, and where there is a permanent contingent of French soldiers.

A few kilometres along a track which bore little resemblance to the road marked on the map took us to another small town, Bangbossou.

'Too late'

As we attempted to leave the town, our path was blocked by a hastily deposed tree trunk, and dozens of excited villagers, many of them brandishing hunting rifles.

They said people from the village had just been robbed by ethnic Dioulas, who were still on the road ahead.

"Armed men came out of the bush," a polite young man named Alain Kouadio Kouakou explained,

"They stole their money and their motorbikes. I think the thieves were [Dioula] rebels from the New Forces.

"It happens all the time here, and the UN always arrive too late."

We were more fortunate and UN troops arrived to escort us on our way.

Tinderbox

These incidents are, thankfully, not that common in the centre of the confidence zone, where Baoules and Dioulas generally live in something approaching harmony.

The situation in the west of Ivory Coast is far more serious however.

We are caught in this transitional situation, and we hope it won't last
Alan Doss
UN mission in Ivory Coast
"The confidence zone in the west is a particular problem," admits the deputy leader of the UN mission in Ivory Coast, Alan Doss.

"I am not saying the rest of the confidence zone is like a holiday camp, far from it.

"There is no doubt living in the confidence zone has made peoples lives far more difficult.

"But it is in the west that there are the biggest problems."

The west is an ethnic tinderbox, with ethnic Guere militias running wild to the south of the confidence zone.

Conflicts between Gueres and Yacoubas, which were exacerbated by the war in Liberia, just over the border, have been part of life in the region for many years now.

Manpower

The presence of Dioulas - seen as outsiders in the area - and foreigners, such as those from Burkina Faso, has also increased tensions, many of which centre around control of the west's rich cocoa and coffee plantations.

One aid worker says the militias, which support President Laurent Gbagbo, are being used to provoke the New Forces in the north into breaking the ceasefire.

Whether this is true or not, robberies, rapes, murders, and even attacks on entire villages are common in the west of the confidence zone, which has become an area of huge insecurity.

So why are the UN and their French military allies unable to keep the peace in the confidence zone?

The main problem is one of manpower.

The peacekeepers have about 3,000 men patrolling a territory that is 1,200km long and sometimes approaching 100km wide.

They simply do not have the resources to be everywhere at once, particularly as the roads are often poor.

The UN has asked for more than 2,000 additional troops to boost their 6,000-strong force in Ivory Coast.

If the UN Security Council agrees, many of these soldiers would be sent to the confidence zone.

Consequences

Alan Doss identifies another problem.

French peacekeeper
Some 4,000 French troops are working with 6,000 from the UN
"The confidence zone was never meant to be a permanent arrangement," he told the BBC.

"We do not manage the zone - it is still part of the territory of Ivory Coast, a sovereign nation.

"We are caught in this transitional situation, and we hope it won't last."

The consequences for the tens of thousands of people living in the confidence zone are serious.

No-one is responsible for the area where they live, and the UN and French peacekeepers charged with the task are simply not able to guarantee their security.


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