Ivorian peace could pave way home for 15,000 refugees
ABIDJAN, Côte d'Ivoire, April 7 (UNHCR) - The UN refugee agency has welcomed the decision by Ivorian parties to end the war in Côte d'Ivoire, a move that could help stabilise the region and pave the way home for some 15,000 Ivorian refugees.
On Wednesday, Côte d'Ivoire's President Laurent Gbagbo, head of the rebel New Forces Guillaume Soro, former Prime Minister Alassane Dramane Ouattara and former President Henri Konan Bedie declared an end to hostilities and war after four days of talks in Pretoria to resolve the conflict that started in September 2002.
The end of the war in Côte d'Ivoire would greatly contribute to stabilising West Africa at a time when Sierra Leone and Liberia are consolidating peace after more than a decade of brutal fighting. Peace in Côte d'Ivoire could also pave the way home for some 15,000 Ivorian refugees in south-eastern Guinea and eastern Liberia who want to return - but only if the hostilities end and the country, now split in two, is reunified.
"The official declaration of the end of the war could now provide the necessary impetus for the repatriation of Ivorian refugees if all parties abide by their commitment to peace," said UNHCR's Africa bureau director, David Lambo.
A ceasefire signed in France in 2003 was broken last November, when the Ivorian government launched an air raid on rebel positions. The renewed fighting sent more than 10,000 Ivorians fleeing into Liberia - itself recovering from 14 years of civil war - and raised UNHCR concerns over the destabilising effect on the region. More recently, in late February this year, fresh clashes in western Côte d'Ivoire disrupted UNHCR's activities and access to some 10,000 Liberian refugees in the area.
On his prospects for return to Côte d'Ivoire, Bao B. Richard, who represents the Ivorian refugees in Monrovia, said, "We prefer to wait and see. We are not willing to return home yet as most of us are from areas still under rebel control. I think it is only after the election that everything will be settled. This will mean that the war is really over."
Over half a million African refugees have returned home since 2004, including 280,000 Sierra Leonean and over 100,000 Liberian refugees - tens of thousands of them with the help of the UN refugee agency.
By Fatoumata Kaba in Abidjan, Côte d'Ivoire
and Sarah Brownell in Monrovia, Liberia