Rebels who control northern Cote d'Ivoire on Sunday freed 40 government soldiers held prisoner for over a year, but again ruled out a quick return to Abidjan to rejoin the government of Prime Minister Seydou Diarra.
Sidiki Konate, spokesman for the "New Forces", told a news conference in the rebel-held northern town of Korhogo that the release of the prisoners did not signal a return by the rebels to the government they abandoned on 23 September.
"There are people who would benefit if war were to restart in the country. We will meet to decide when to return to Abidjan only after the government is able to control those war mongers, guarantee our security and ease tension in the country," Konate said.
He said a visit to the rebel headquarters of Bouake by Prime Minister Seydou Diarra on Saturday had failed to convince them to immediately return to government.
The freed soldiers were handed over to the International Committee of the Red Cross in the presence of West African peacekeepers, French and Ivorian army representatives and United Nations observers, by the Chief of staff of the rebel "New Forces", Colonel Soumaila Bakayoko.
Thirty three of the men climbed aboard a French army aircraft in Korhogo for a short flight to Bouake, where the aircraft picked up another eight freed men. It then flew to Abidjan.
Col Bakayoko told IRIN the decision to release the men was reached over three months ago at a meeting between the "New Forces", the UN, ECOWAS, French and Ivorian army representatives. It was done in accordance with an amnesty passed by the Ivorian government.
"The release should have been done earlier when the Ivorian army released six of our men but there was a delay," Col Bakayoko said.
"These men were captured after combat in Bouake in October 2002. They were good soldiers who were doing their job. It was not their fault...so we decided not to treat them as prisoners but as brothers in arms. They were treated properly," he added.
The French plane was later welcomed in Abidjan by five government ministers, UN officials and observers from the West African military mission in Cote d'Ivoire, the spokesman of the Ivorian national army, Aka N’Goran, told IRIN.
The rebels launched simultaneous attacks on the commercial capital, Abidjan, Bouake and Korhogo on 19 September 2002 in an attempt to topple President Laurent Gbagbo. The failed coup has turned into a prolonged conflict with the rebels in control of the north of the country.
In January a peace agreement was signed in France, paving way for the rebels to join a government of national unity led by Diarra. But the rebels withdrew from the government in September, citing lack of security, mistrust and foot-dragging by Gbagbo in implementation of the peace agreement.
Diplomats in Abidjan told IRIN that the rebels wanted to return to Abidjan last week, but a clash between French soldiers and pro-Gbagbo youths, a televised demand by unhappy soldiers for the resignation of the army chief of staff and protests around the French army base in Abidjan had forced the rebels to backtrack.
The release of prisoners of war was confirmed in a meeting held on Thursday in the capital, Yamoussoukro, 266 km north of Abidjan. Gbagbo attended the meeting with his army chief of staff and announced that he would travel to Bouake to launch the disarmament process.
But Bakayoko told IRIN in Korhogo on Sunday: "Disarmament is a long process. It is a step by step processes that cannot be hurried. And its just one aspect of the peace agreement. At the moment one side controls all...there are all sorts of roadblocks."
He denounced Gbagbo's proposed visit to Bouake. "He invited himself to Bouake and that is as far it is," he said.
Other rebels soldiers told IRIN, they were unhappy that the government still held rebel prisoners of war, including Sgt Youssouf Outtara, the rebel head of operations in Abidjan who was captured three months ago. The soldiers said he was being held at a gendarmerie camp in Koumassi.
Meamwhile two West African officers, one Nigerian and one Togolese, were injured in accident on the way from Korhogo airport after witnessing the handover of the freed prisoners.
This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions