I.Coast president sacks government

ABIDJAN: Ivory Coast President Laurent Gbagbo on state television sacked the government and dismissed the electoral commission because of a crisis sparked by alleged fraud by the commission's head.

The move throws into doubt the electoral and reconciliation process in the divided country, where elections have been delayed six times since Gbagbo's mandate ran out in 2005.

Gbagbo on Friday called on former rebel New Forces (FN) leader and current Prime Minister Guillaume Soro to form a new government on February 15 and decide on a new "format" for the Independent Electoral Commission.

Gbagbo accused the CEI's head, Robert Beugre Mambe, of having "carried out an illegal operation aimed at obtaining the fraudulent inscription of 429,030 people on the electoral list."

"Just as we thought we had completed our efforts to have clean elections, we see that in reality the peace process... is taken hostage by political parties," Gbagbo said.

"I ask the prime minister to propose to me within seven days from today (Friday) the format of a new credible Independent Electoral Commission which will organise fair and transparent elections," he said.

Ivory Coast investigators said last week that they had found evidence of fraud in a voters' roll being compiled for long-delayed polls because the election panel had used a compact disc with unauthorised names.

Niamkey Koffi, of the opposition Ivory Coast Democratic Party (PDCI), told AFP after Gbagbo's announcement that he had destroyed "all progress in the peace process and sawed off the branch on which he himself was sat."

Anne Ouloto of the opposition Republican Gathering (RDR) party said that "we condemn this decision because it throws into doubt the process for getting out of the crisis."

The electoral process has also been mired by a legal process which has seen some voters of foreign descent struck off the electoral roll, sparking unrest.

Several thousand people took part in a demonstration in the western town of Vavoua on Tuesday, burning a public building, and last week hundreds ransacked a court in the town of Man, also in the west of the country.

The debate centres on whether people of foreign descent who live in Ivory Coast should be allowed to vote.

The issue is linked to the notion of "Ivoirite" or "Ivorianness", which was a factor behind a 2002 coup plot.

The Ivorian opposition has accused Gbagbo's party of pressuring courts to "strike off names from voters' rolls in an arbitrary, biased and illegal fashion," and called upon supporters to resist such moves.

The UN Security Council recently called for an election to be held by May 31, before mandates for a UN force with nearly 8,000 personnel and a French 1,800-troop deployment in the country run out.

It urged "the relevant Ivorian stakeholders to ensure the publication of the final voters list, to announce the official date of the first round of the presidential elections and to meet their commitments in full."

The poll is aimed at ending a crisis that began with the attempted coup against Gbagbo in September 2002, which left the country split between the rebel-held north -- which is mainly Muslim -- and a government-controlled Christian-dominated south.