The parliament of Cote d'Ivoire voted overwhelmingly on Wednesday to approve an amnesty for rebels occupying the north of the country. The law was approved with no votes against and only two abstentions, despite much grumbling from the Ivorian Patriotic Front (FPI) of President Laurent Gbagbo.
The amnesty law covers acts of rebellion against the government since the controversial presidential elections of September 2000 when several hundred people died in clashes. Trouble arose because former prime minister Alassane Ouattara was barred from standing in the poll on the grounds that he was not a true Ivorian.
Civil war broke out in September last year, but a French-brokered peace agreement in January led to the formation of a government of national reconciliation in March, after which the fighting petered out.
However, the rebel Patriotic Movement of Cote d'Ivoire (MPCI), continues to hold sway in the north of the country and the passage of the amnesty law was considered essential by all sides for a planned process of demobilisation and disarmament to get under way. It paves the way for soldiers and policemen who joined the rebel ranks to be reintegrated into the security forces.
The rebels are also demanding that President Gbagbo appoint new ministers of defence and the interior to the broad-based coalition government before they hand over their guns and allow government administrators back into the north.
The appointment of the two ministers has been held up for months by the lack of a consensus between Gbagbo, the unarmed opposition parties and the rebels over who should occupy these key posts. However, Prime Minister Seydou Diarra said during a visit to Paris last week that he would make proposals soon to overcome the impasse.
Stressing the link between the amnesty and the process of disarmament, acting interior minister Zemogo Fofana said on Wednesday: "Right now we are voting the law. Disarmament will follow."
Justice Minister Henriette Diabate offered a sop to hawks in Gbagbo's FPI who were unhappy about the terms of the amnesty, by saying the government would set up a US $40 million fund to compensate victims of the civil war.
The amnesty specifically excludes economic crimes and "serious violations" of human rights. These were not defined in the final draft of the amnesty law, but officials said "serious violations" would cover crimes such as killings unlinked to combat, and rape.
Diabate told parliament that the amnesty also excluded mercenaries and other foreigners who fought in unofficial militia groups who used by both sides during the conflict. "The Ivorian justice system will be able to deliberate in their cases," she said.
Many Liberian refugees were armed and sent into combat by the government army, while Liberian and Sierra Leonean mercenaries and Burkinabe fighters were used by the rebels.
The leadership of the rebel movement, which is now officially known as "The New Forces" was due to meet in the rebel capital Bouake on Friday to review the peace process.