Ivorian militia chief declares loyalty to Ouattara

Reuters News
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Posted: Apr 19, 2011 12:51 PM
Ivorian militia chief declares loyalty to Ouattara

By Ange Aboa ABIDJAN (Reuters) - The head of a powerful militia that fought against Laurent Gbagbo in Ivory Coast on Tuesday pledged allegiance to President Alassane Ouattara and dismissed reports that his men had fallen out with other fighters.

Ibrahim Coulibaly, head of the "Invisible Commandos" who harassed Gbagbo forces in Abidjan for weeks, said pro-Gbagbo forces must be included in the country's new army to avoid future bloodshed.

Ouattara won a November election which previous president Gbagbo refused to cede, leading to a four-month power struggle that ended last week when pro-Ouattara forces captured Gbagbo.

Gbagbo's arrest has raised hopes for peace in the leading cocoa grower.

But the weeks of heavy fighting have left groups of armed men scattered across the country.

"The Invisible Commandos are at the service of the republic, its people and its head of state," Coulibaly, known as "IB," told reporters in his first press conference since his men started attacking Gbagbo's forces in Abidjan in January.

Coulibaly dismissed reports of disputes with other militias, saying that his 5,000 fighters were working alongside pro-Ouattara forces. "Anything else is a lie," he added.

Coulibaly's attacks in the north of the commercial capital appeared to open the way for Ouattara's supporters to sweep south and enter the city.

Their advance initially stalled amid fierce resistance from Gbagbo's elite forces and reports of rows between Coulibaly and Guillaume Soro, the former rebel leader who is Ouattara's prime minister.

Analysts questioned whether Ouattara would be able to control Coulibaly once he came to power.

"It is true that there was a moment of disagreement between myself and my young brother (Soro) but I think now is the time for reconciliation and forgiveness," Coulibaly said.

In recent days, residents who sheltered in their homes during days of intense fighting have started going back to work as a semblance of normality returns to parts of the city.

But in a reminder of the dangers, residents said heavy gunfire rang out on Tuesday in Yopougon, a district in Abidjan where many of the pro-Gbagbo militia, civilians who were armed during the last days of the fighting, have retreated to.

"We are hearing explosions. There is the firing of heavy weapons. There is also the firing of Kalashnikovs," said Alexis Agnero. "There is fighting between the Republican Forces and the militia."

Aside from restarting the economy, which was paralyzed by the violence and international sanctions imposed on Gbagbo, Ouattara will have to forge a unified national army.

Coulibaly said it was up to Ouattara to decide what role he and his men would play. He added pro-Gbagbo forces would have to be included in the new army to avoid further violence.

"They have to be part of the new army and reconstruction. It is the only way forward now," he said. "If you ignore them ... without forgiving them, you can expect a rebellion one day."

(Additional reporting by Loucoumane Coulibaly; Writing by David Lewis; Editing by Andrew Heavens)