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(SomaliNet) Ivorian President Laurent Gbagbo on Wednesday began a symbolic three-day trip to the rebel-dominated north aimed at shoring up peace ahead of elections in the West African country next year.

Ivory Coast - the world's biggest cocoa-producer and once a beacon of peace and prosperity - has been sliced in two by civil conflict since September 2002, when rebels attempted a coup against Gbagbo.

Since then the New Forces (FN) rebels, whose leader Guillaume Soro became Ivorian prime minister under a peace accord eight months ago, have been in control of the north, while Gbagbo has ruled the south.

Both men signed an accord in neighbouring Burkina Faso on Tuesday pledging full presidential and parliamentary elections by June 2008.

Gbagbo landed on Wednesday by helicopter in Korhogo, which until recently was considered the stronghold of the rebellion against his rule, and was met by Soro and other FN and government figures - as well as huge crowds.

"If he comes here today, it means that the country is reunified," said Kassoum Coulibaly, the elected leader of the Korhogo district and member of the opposition Democratic Party of Ivory Coast (PDCI).

"The people have suffered. The population is tired and wants peace," he added.

As a symbol of that reconciliation, the chairman of the president's Ivorian Popular Front (FPI) party, Pascal Affi N'Guessan, was seen rubbing shoulders with former coup leaders.

But one local resident, recalling the government bombardment of northern rebel towns in November 2004, said: "What is he doing coming here when he tried to kill us?"

Equally seriously for other locals, the majority of whom are Muslim, the president cut off water and electricity supplies in the middle of Ramadan.

"Those things can't be denied because they are facts but we must entrench the peace process and then the day will come for forgiveness," said the mayor of Korhogo, a member of the opposition Rally of the Republicans (RDR).

Gbagbo's trip is the first time since the failed coup that he has visited the extreme north, which bore the brunt of low-level civil conflict.

Later Wednesday, after leaving Korhogo for Ferkessedougou, the birthplace of his one-time rival Soro, he was greeted by massed crowds which he saluted from an open-topped car.

"The time for campaigning is coming soon. The war is over, the most difficult times are behind us," Gbagbo told a large crowd in Ferkessedougou.

The visit comes the day after Gbagbo and Soro signed a deal in the Burkina capital Ouagadougou agreeing to hold elections by June 2008 "at the latest".

The meeting was called to revive a peace deal brokered eight months ago, which had shown signs of stalling.

Soro and Gbagbo, a Christian from the south, hope the president's tour of the north will help show that Ivory Coast has turned the page over its recent troubled past and is well on the road to reconciliation.

"We must show that from now on it is possible to run an electoral campaign in peace," Meite Sindou, Soro's spokesperson, said ahead of the trip.

Gbagbo will later visit the cities of Boundiali and Tengrela, close to the borders with Mali and Burkina Faso. - Sapa-AFP