KORHOGO, Ivory Coast – Pro-government militia fighters in western Ivory Coast began laying down arms on Wednesday, the first step of a delayed nationwide disarmament program in this war-divided West African nation.
About 109 combatants in the western town of Guiglo handed over weapons to a South African mediating team, which is overseeing the disarmament of an estimated 2,000 fighters by Aug. 6, said South African Capt. Immanuel Canchibato.
The weapons — including 47 Kalashnikovs, three rocket-propelled grenade launchers and one mortar tube — were destroyed, said Canchibato, a member of the disarmament team.
South African President Thabo Mbeki is helping mediate Ivory Coast's years-long conflict, and sent a team of military personnel to help disarm warring parties.
Disarmament is a key requisite to delayed presidential elections, scheduled to take place before the end of October. It would be the first presidential election in Ivory Coast since war broke out in 2002. Besides loyalist militias, rebels who control the north are also supposed to disarm, and government troops in the south are supposed to return to barracks, though no date has been set.
Last month, pro-government militia fighters failed to disarm twice, casting doubt on whether the volatile nation would be ready to hold an election before October.
Ivory Coast, the world's leading cocoa producer, has been split between the government-controlled south and rebel-held north since fighting broke out in the main city, Abidjan, in September 2002. About 10,000 United Nations and French forces patrol an area between the regions.
Balloting was delayed last year because little movement was made on a series of peace deals meant to reunite the country — including disarmament and a national scheme to issue identity documents to millions of people who don't have them.
On Tuesday, pro-government youth attempted to block a controversial national identification program in Ivory Coast's former colonial capital, sparking violence that left one person dead and several injured, officials said Wednesday.
Antoine Wognin, an official of the Rally of Republicans party, said his group fought pro-government Young Patriots militia because they tried to block the identification program in Grand Bassam on Tuesday.
The U.N. Security Council on Wednesday condemned new violence in Ivory Coast and warned that it would consider slapping sanctions against anyone who tries to block upcoming elections.
The program will enable millions of undocumented Ivorians to vote in elections scheduled to take place by October. Gbagbo's supporters believe the program could lead to an unfair ballot.
Tensions have been rising between government supporters and opposition factions since the identification program started two weeks ago.
Wognin said one of his men died in the clashes. Fidel Elokou, of the Young Patriots, said opposition supporters fought with machetes and Kalashnikovs, though opposition officials said they used only stones.
Grand Bassam is by the sea about 30 miles from Abidjan.
An estimated 3.5 million of Ivory Coast's 17 million people live in the country without proper identity papers. A third of the population are immigrants from neighboring nations who came to work in the world's leading cocoa producer as agricultural laborers, and their presence has spurred resentment from some who consider themselves "pure" Ivorians.
Rebels, opposition leaders and residents with roots in the north have long accused authorities of discrimination, denying them national identity papers and treating them as foreigners in their own country.