The government and rebels of Cote d’Ivoire declared an immediate and definitive end to hostilities on Wednesday after three days of talks in South Africa, but the key issue of whether opposition leader Alassane Ouattara would be allowed to contest presidential elections due later this year remained unresolved.
A final communiqué said President Thabo Mbeki of South Africa, the mediator of the peace talks, would settle an outstanding dispute over the reform of article 35 of the Ivorian constitution, which has been invoked in the past to prevent Ouattara from standing for the presidency.
Diplomats in West Africa said this unfinished business did not bode well for the immediate implementation of a frozen peace accord to end nearly three years of civil war.
But the very fact that President Laurent Gbagbo and rebel leader Guillaume Soro sat down together in Pretoria to talk face-to-face for the first time in nine months was hailed as an achievement.
The two men last met in July 2004 at a peace summit in the Ghanaian capital Accra.
But that meeting, like others before it, failed to break the deadlock over implementation of the January 2003 Linas Marcoussis peace agreement.
Gbagbo addressed widespread scepticism that the Pretoria agreement would also lead nowhere.
"Many say another agreement again, but when we sign an agreement it is because we are still looking for something," he said.
The French-brokered Marcoussis peace accord is still being used by Mbeki and the international community as the blueprint for a negotiated settlement to the conflict in Cote d'Ivoire.
It led to the government and rebels signing a ceasefire agreement in May 2003 and an uneasy truce has reigned in the West African country since then.
But the truce nearly broke down in November last year when Gbagbo sent his air force to bomb the rebel-held north, and again in late February, when a pro-Gbagbo militia group attacked a rebel outpost on the frontline.
The final communiqué issued in Pretoria pledged that there would be no more incidents of that nature and that informal militia groups operating in support of both sides would be dismantled.
"The Ivorian parties that are signatories to the Pretoria agreement hereby solemnly declare the immediate and final cessation of all hostilities and the end of the war throughout the national territory," Gbagbo, Soro, Prime Minister Seydou Diarra and the leaders of Cote d’Ivoire’s two main opposition parties said in a joint statement.
Their meeting, which had been billed as a last chance to disarm the rebels and reunify the country in time for presidential and parliamentary elections due in October, closed in a sombre mood after a day of talks aimed at setting the final seal on a peace deal dragged on into three.
Back in Cote d’Ivoire, opposition supporters highlighted the fact that the row over reform of article 35 of the constitution had not been resolved.
Parliament has amended the clause to stipulate that only one parent of a presidential candidate must be Ivorian, rather than both. But Gbagbo has insisted that the change be endorsed by a referendum which would be difficult to hold while the country remains split in two.
Article 35 was used to prevent Ouattara, the rebels’ choice for president, from standing against Gbagbo at the last election in 2000 on the disputed grounds that his father was Burkinabe.
"The Ivorians have not been able to agree with each other on the conditions for eligibility," Soro said, adding that the matter was now in Mbeki's hands to resolve.
"We need to leave this to be sorted out over time," Gbagbo said.
“The question of article 35 was not solved and I am uneasy,” said Soualio Kader Sylla, an official of Ouattara’s Rally of the Republicans (RDR) party. “I think that if the political leaders return from Pretoria without a solution to this problem then nothing was achieved,” he told IRIN in Abidjan.
The factions which attended the the Pretoria talks left Mbeki to decide how the reform of article 35 should be handled following consultations with Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo, the chairman of the African Union, and UN Secretary General Kofi Annan.
Mbeki said he expected to give his ruling within a week.
"We need a courageous decision good once for all. Each time that there is a summit on Cote d’Ivoire everyone holds their breath,” Sylla, the RDR official in Abidjan, said.
Ouattara, a former prime minister of Cote d’Ivoire who now lives in exile in Paris, attended the Pretoria talks.
So too did former president Henri Konan Bedie, the leader of the Democratic Party of Cote d’Ivoire (PDCI) who was ousted from power in 1999 in the country’s first ever coup.
The factions agreed to relaunch the process of disarmament, which has been on hold for nearly two years, at a meeting between government and military chiefs in the rebel stronghold of Bouake on 14 April.
But seasoned observers of Cote d’Ivoire, which plunged into civil war in September 2002, remained sceptical that the peace process would now move forward.
“What is important now is what they do, not what they say. That is what really counts,” an Abidjan-based commodities analyst told IRIN.
The government and rebels have made repeated commitments to end hostilities and start the process of disarmament in the past, but none of them have so far been honoured.
Mbeki condemned the most recent flare-ups of violence in Cote d'Ivoire.
“As mediator, we have expressed our own condemnation and disapproval… of cease-fire violations that have taken place on 4 to 6 November last year and another violation that took place last month on the western side of Cote d'Ivoire,” the South African president said.
“We are against these violations of the cease fire, we are against any of this violence, but as I say the leaders by this formal declaration of the ending of the war, address the same question.”
Charles Ble Goude, leader of the Young Patriots, a militia-style pro-Gbagbo youth movement, told IRIN that he could not comment on the outcome of the meeting in Pretoria until he had discussed the situation with the president on his return to Cote d’Ivoire.
But Genevieve Bro Grebe, the leader of a militant pro-Gbagbo women’s movement was upbeat.
“These resolutions give grounds for optimism,” she told IRIN, highlighting that the rebels had given a fresh commitment to disarm. “If there is disarmament, we think everything will be alright.”
The rebels have so far refused to hand in their weapons to a 6,000-strong UN peacekeeping force, saying Gbagbo has failed to deliver key political reforms promised by Marcoussis and has failed to devolve real power to the power-sharing government of national reconciliation headed by Prime Minister Diarra.