Voter list finalized in Ivory Coast, removing last obstacle to holding long-delayed election

ABIDJAN, Ivory Coast (AP) — Ivory Coast's president signed a finalized voter list on Thursday, removing the last obstacle to holding a long-delayed presidential election that could bring an eight-year political crisis to an end.

At a ceremony in the presidential palace, President Laurent Gbagbo signed a decree issuing national identity cards to those appearing on the list. He also authorized the final preparations for the election, now slated for Oct. 31.

"Millions of people will receive ID cards for the first time in their lives," said Young-Jin Choi, the head of the U.N. peacekeeping force in the West African nation.

Disputes over citizenship sparked a civil war eight years ago in Ivory Coast, the world's top cocoa producer. Ivory Coast was divided into a rebel-controlled north and a government-controlled south, preventing elections from being held.

Peace accords signed in 2007 brought rebels into a power-sharing government with Gbagbo's allies and called for elections within a year. However, disagreements over voter registration brought the peace process to a standstill and several elections dates came and went without any sign that progress was being made.

Members of the now-reconciled rebel group hailed the list's publication, which automatically grants citizenship to everyone on it. Gbagbo also said that an appeals process would be opened following the election for those who were left off it.

"The identity crisis that began back in 2002 has finally been resolved with the issuing of identity cards," said Sidiki Konate, a leading member of the New Forces rebels. "Even those who aren't on the list now have a way to become citizens."

The former French colony won independence in 1960 and became an economic powerhouse. Tens of thousands of immigrants poured in from neighboring countries lured by high-paying farm jobs and a liberal land ownership policy, sparking controversy over who is a citizen eligible to vote in national elections.

Choi said the establishment of the voter list Thursday "is a strong impetus for the election to be held on Oct. 31."

Gbagbo said that only logistical tasks now remain, such as printing the ID cards, distributing them and training election officers.

"The day of the elections, he who wins, wins. He who loses, loses. We don't want a fight," Gbagbo said.

Fears that the peace process had come unhinged erupted in February, when Gbagbo unilaterally dissolved the government and the electoral commission, amid allegations that hundreds of thousands of foreigners had been included on voter rolls. This led to three weeks of violent opposition demonstrations that left at least five people dead.