Cote d'Ivoire: Gbagbo Stands Firm, Rebel Leader Declares Himself Prime Minister

Abidjan — Ivorian President Laurent Gbagbo began a sixth year in office on Monday, defying opposition calls that he stand down now his elected mandate is up and shrugging off a bid by rebels to stake their claim to the prime minister's chair.

Gbagbo appeared on state television on Sunday night to confirm that he would continue to govern the country, split in two since a failed insurgency more than three years ago, until elections could be rescheduled.

"I will never allow the decapitation of the state of Ivory Coast," he told the nation, hours after thousands of opposition supporters held a rally to demand that he step aside. "The president of the republic will continue guaranteeing the continuity of the state and will remain the head until elections are held."

Sunday was the day the West African economic powerhouse was supposed to have gone to the polls in a bid to turn the page on three years of no war, no peace.

But a month before the planned ballot, the United Nations said a 30 October polling day was impossible because of the intransigence of the warring parties.

It subsequently backed proposals, hammered out by the African Union, to allow Gbagbo to remain in office for a maximum of 12 more months.

Gbagbo said on Sunday that he hoped the presidential election would happen well before a year was up.

"That is the mission I will give to the prime minister who will be appointed in a few days time," said Gbagbo.

But the president's national address cut no ice with rebels holding the northern half of the country, who released a statement shortly afterwards, declaring that they had chosen their leader, 33-year-old Guillaume Soro, as the new prime minister.

"The leader of the New Forces, Guillaume Soro, is designated the new prime minister of the future transitional government of Cote d'Ivoire," said the statement, released less than two hours after Gbagbo appeared on television. "Mr Laurent Gbagbo's presidential mandate is well and truly over."

Soro's unilateral declaration met with contempt from the government.

"I don't take this declaration seriously. I don't even take Soro seriously," government spokesman Desire Tagro, told IRIN on Monday.

And even the leaders of the political opposition said that the rebels did not have the authority to pick the new prime minister.

"The New Forces cannot designate a prime minister. They can propose a new prime minister. It's not the same thing," said Alphonse Djedje Mady of the G7 coalition, which groups together the main political opposition parties and the New Forces.

Diplomats say that the new prime minister will be announced after a special meeting between all the signatories of the first peace deal, known as Linas-Marcoussis that was signed in January 2003 and has served as the blueprint for all further mediation attempts.

The meeting, which was supposed to have been held over the weekend, will be led by AU Chairman and Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo, and South African President Thabo Mbeki, who has been spearheading the AU's mediation efforts for the past year.

"In light of the tragic loss of his wife, President Obasanjo of Nigeria has not yet been able to travel to Cote d'Ivoire," UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan said in a statement over the weekend.

"In the meantime, I call on all the Ivorian parties and their followers to refrain from any actions that might create tensions and to remain committed to the ongoing process aimed at restoring lasting peace and stability to their country," he added.

Thousands of opposition supporters, chanting "Bye bye Gbagbo", packed into a sports stadium in the main city Abidjan on Sunday, but the event passed off without major incident.

Threats to oust Gbagbo from the presidential palace once the clock chimed midnight and his mandate expired did not materialise.

For many Ivorians it was business as usual on Monday, as cars plied the wide boulevards and markets and shops bustled with customers, but beneath the activity, there was an air of resignation.

"It's not good that Gbagbo stays. But what can we say? It is not for us to say to a big man like that that he must leave," said Youssoumo as he took a break from labouring in the midday heat to gulp down some water.

"It's with the UN now to sort out the problems in Cote d'Ivoire, and they need to be sorted out. As each month that goes by, we are suffering."

[ This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations ]

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