TIEBISSOU, Ivory Coast—Hundreds of government soldiers withdrew Saturday from a vast buffer zone dividing Ivory Coast, the first stage of a long-delayed nationwide disarmament program.
Rebels also pulled back, and were eventually to hand in their weapons and be integrated into the army or demobilized.
"Starting today, you will quit the front lines. There is no more front in Ivory Coast," President Laurent Gbagbo told soldiers in Tiebissou, a former loyalist-held front-line town about 215 miles north of the West African country's main city, Abidjan.
Several hundred soldiers climbed into trucks and drove to an army barracks in the capital, Yamoussoukro. North of the buffer zone at Djebonoua, rebels packed into vehicles and headed toward military barracks near their stronghold at Bouake.
Ivory Coast's warring parties first agreed to disarm during a peace accord reached several months after a brief war erupted in 2002, splitting the nation into a rebel-controlled north and a government-held south.
In 2004, the government announced the start of disarmament, but the bickering parties delayed the process repeatedly.
Prime Minister Guillaume Soro, who led the rebellion until a peace deal brokered in neighboring Burkina Faso in March, was also present.
"This day is important because this day effectively, concretely marks the beginning of disarmament," Soro said.
Ivory Coast, the world's leading cocoa exporter, was once an oasis of stability in war-ravaged West Africa. A 1999 coup sparked years of uprisings and eventually the war.