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Last Updated: Saturday, 22 December 2007, 20:38 GMT
Ivory Coast's disarmament begins
President Laurent Gbagbo (l) with Prime Minister Guillaume Soro
President Gbagbo (l) and PM Soro are working together in government
Rebels and government forces in Ivory Coast have begun the process of disarmament more than five years after the country descended into violence.

Ceremonies were held in towns on either side of the ceasefire line which divides the rebel-run north from the government-controlled south.

Former enemies President Laurent Gbagbo and ex-rebel leader Guillaume Soro forged a partnership in March.

Mr Soro was then appointed prime minister in a power-sharing government.

Mr Gbagbo and Mr Soro started the day in the government-held town of Tiebissou just south of the ceasefire line, where they watched a loyalist militia group symbolically assemble and then move away from the frontier towards the capital, Yamassoukro.

Also present was the UN's special representative in Ivory Coast, Choi Young-jin.

"Starting today, you will quit the front lines. There is no more front line in Ivory Coast," President Gbagbo told the troops.

A similar ceremony was held later in Djebonoua, in the north, from where rebel troops - or New Forces as they are known - were bussed to barracks in the town of Bouake.

National reconciliation

BBC correspondent John James says this could be one of the most significant steps towards the planned reunification of Ivory Coast, a country with one government but two armies controlling the northern and southern halves.

Ivory Coast map

Critics say the ceremonies are merely "symbolic acts" after a previous attempt at disarmament failed last year.

In March the two sides in the conflict set aside peace deals brokered by the international community to negotiate directly and sign their own agreement.

This agreement set out a timetable for the peace process, which gave 22 December as the last possible date for the start of disarmament.

The peace deal put Mr Gbagbo and Mr Soro in the driving seat of the peace process - and in particular the organisation of long-postponed elections.

President Gbagbo has repeated his prediction that elections will be held before the end of June.

Since the deal, UN peacekeepers have stopped policing the ceasefire line and movement between the two halves of the country has become easier.

But disarmament has been one of the toughest issues in the process of national reconciliation.

Thousands of soldiers need to find new work, while others will be integrated into the new, joint national army.

The government estimates some 5,000 government soldiers and 33,000 rebel fighters will be assembled at disarmament sites and barracks over the next three months.

Our correspondent says the next few weeks will be crucial in determining the willingness of both sides to pull back and disarm their fighters.

VIDEO AND AUDIO NEWS
President Gbagbo addresses government forces



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