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Côte d'Ivoire's main rebel group pledge respect for children's rights during regional director's visit to rebel stronghold

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Costa de Marfil
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UNICEF
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1 March 2003 - UNICEF regional director for West and Central Africa, Rima Salah and Côte d'Ivoire country representative, Georgette Aithnard, have held talks with the main Ivoirian rebel group, the Movement Patriotic de Cote d'Ivoire (MPCI) during which the MPCI pledged full cooperation in the protection of the rights of children and women in the areas under their control.
In an hour-long discussion with MPCI director of communication and spokesperson, Antoine Beugre, held in the rebels' stronghold, Bouake, Saturday, March 01, Salah stressed the need for the full observance of international humanitarian laws, specifically, those concerning the neutrality and impartiality of United Nations' assistance to populations affected by armed conflict.

She stressed that all children, regardless of their political, ethnic and religious background have the right to health, education and legal protection. She expressed UNICEF's concern about reports of child combatants among the MPCI and other rebel ranks. Salah detailed the role and planned activities of the newly-opened (January) UNICEF sub-office in Bouake to better provide and coordinate its support in health & nutrition, water & environmental sanitation, basic education and child protection to the IDPs and refugees in Bouake, environs and further up to Korhogo and other parts of the country currently out of reach to humanitarian workers due to insecurity.

"We cannot emphasize well enough the need for access, free and safe movement of our personnel and supplies in the areas under the local authorities to allow us to reach all the vulnerable population", Salah said. A million people, the majority of them women and children, are estimated to have been displaced from their homes in the armed stand-off in Côte d'Ivoire.

Beugre thanked UNICEF for its "past effort and for what you are going to do in the future for the people". He talked at length about the reason behind the MPCI's armed uprising, which was to defend "our nationality and very existence", he said. He said that contrary to reports, "no child has ever been in combat" and that any sighting of a minor holding a weapon might have been the case of the child playing adult by brandishing the gun of a soldier at a checkpoint. "This is one of the reasons we need to get all of them back to school quickly. Children will never be allowed to hold arms and fight - that we assure UNICEF", Beugre added. He invited UNICEF to tour MPCI training camps, an offer UNICEF has accepted and will be organized in an appropriate time and under relevant security. Beugre said a number of the schools have reopened under the management of the local authorities but that the "back to school" effort is hampered by the flight of many of the teachers - as was the case in the other basic services.

Salah and Aithnard participated in a measles vaccination and Vitamin-A supplementation drive in Bouake during Saturday's visit. They administered Vitamin-A drops and measles shots to several babies in one of the six health centres that have been restarted out of the 33 prior to the war. Some 9,000 U5s were immunized in two days. The exercise continues. Salah and Aithnard also visited the central Cold Chain depot and reviewed stocks.

The meeting in Bouake, Côte d'Ivoire's second largest town 350km north of Abidjan, was the first high-level contact between UNICEF and the MPCI since the Ivorian crisis erupted in September 2002, splitting the West African economic powerhouse into two, with the northern half and extreme south-west outside the control of the government of President Laurent Gbagbo. An October 2002 ceasefire brokered by ECOWAS, the grouping of West African States, is holding tenuously while the French sponsored Marcoussis/Kleber power-sharing peace agreement of January 19 has faced a serious set-back that is yet to be resolved.

A day before the visit to Bouake Salah and Aithnard visited the national capital Yamoussoukro, now a logistics hub for planned UNICEF operations for the north and west. Salah and Aithnard met with the topmost government representative in Yamoussoukro, Monsieur le Prefet Ahipohri, who assured UNICEF of the government's full cooperation to reach all the needy population wherever they may be located. Ahipohri took delivery of a batch of medical kits for the local MCH clinic and environment sanitation supplies to benefit some 10,000 IDPs for three months.

The field trip also covered Daloa, regional capital of Haut Sassandra, 400km northwest of Abidjan and the scene of some of the bloodiest fighting between loyal forces and rebel troops. UNICEF presented 14 medical kits and 4 education/recreation kits as well as environment sanitation supplies to representatives of the Prefecture to benefit some 6,000 IDPs in the town.