Ivory Coast's rebel leader plots his next move

Guillaume Soro says he will hold his fire until after this week's African summit in Paris.

Amid piles of cinder blocks, burned-out cars, and broken furniture-cum-makeshift barricades around this rebel-held town, sits Bouaké's famed American Bar.

Here, past the crush of bleach-blond hairdos and impossibly large silver chains, in the VIP room, rebel leader Guillaume Soro and his fellow fighters while away the nights doing the twist under a revolving blue disco light - walkie talkies in back pockets, orange soda pops in hand.

The disc jockey raps out "Soro-Soro;" girls in tight tops beg AK-47-toting guards to let them in; and Alfaville's 1980s hit song, "Forever Young," comes on the sound system.

"And so we are," says "Wattao," one of Mr. Soro's senior military leaders, as he takes off his cap, wipes the sweat off his forehead, and smiles an enormous gap-toothed smile. "Forever young," he says. "Totally invincible."

Young, invincible, and impatiently waiting.

Nearly a month into a French-brokered power-sharing peace deal between Soro's Patriotic Movement of Ivory Coast (MPCI) rebels and the government of President Laurent Gbagbo, the rebels are as far away from power as ever. Mr. Gbagbo has indicated that it would be impossible to hand over the all-important ministries of defense and interior to the rebels as previously agreed. This deal was supposed to bring an end to a civil war that has split the country since a failed coup last September.

The MPCI charges that Gbagbo secretly drummed up anti-accord sentiment in an effort to give himself an excuse to renege on promises. "We are still willing to work with Gbagbo's government," says MPCI spokesman Konate Sidiki, "but we are getting very frustrated."

And yet the rebels leaders seem strangely confident and calm. "We don't need much sleep," explains Wattao, a dancing machine, who uses his rebel nickname so as to protect his family. "We are all fired up ... just waiting for our moment."

When and how that moment will arrive is unclear. After postponing a march on the commercial capital, Abidjan, earlier this week, Soro promised his men will hold fire until the end of a three-day African leaders' summit in Paris ending tomorrow, which was expected to address the crisis. Just in case, the French military, with 3,000 troops in Ivory Coast to monitor the cease-fire and protect French nationals, warned it would open fire if MPCI advanced.

Soro and his men say their young rank and file are champing at the bit, but still prefer to end the conflict diplomatically. "I was satisfied with Marcoussis," says Soro, referring to the town outside Paris where the deal was signed in late January.

The agreement envisions power sharing between the Muslim north and Christian south, including giving the MPCI and two other smaller breakaway factions in the west two government ministries each.

The deal also calls for a rewriting of the controversial citizenship laws, which limit the political rights of residents with anything less than 100 percent Ivorian heritage. The rebels say that in recent years, including the 2000 presidential election which brought Gbagbo to power, they have become increasingly disenfranchised.

"The deal is sound," said Soro, earlier in the day from his shuttered Bouaké office. Kicking off his white patent-leather slippers, and sipping flat cola on ice from a wine glass, he said that "the problem is with the implementation.... The problem is with a president who does not fulfill promises."

Soro rejected Gbagbo's assertion that he was pressured by the French into signing the deal in the first place. "If anyone should have been intimidated at those talks it was me," argues the 30-something. "That was the first time in my life I ever saw [French President Jacques] Chirac ... the first time I saw [UN Secretary-General] Kofi Annan. I was the underdog.... Gbagbo is friends with those important people. He calls Chirac all the time on the telephone - why would he have been under pressure?"

Despite the setbacks and delays, the rebels remain upbeat because they feel the international community recognizes the legitimacy of their fight and will ensure the deal is ultimately implemented.

Its 2 a.m. at the American Bar, the rebel leaders are still partying. Outside, Bouaké is asleep. Stores are boarded up, schools are closed down, and streetlights are off. Once in a while the faint sound of the DJ wafts out into the darkness: "Soro-Soro."

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