By Joe Bavier
ABIDJAN (Reuters) - Ivory Coast rebel leader-turned-parliament speaker Guillaume Soro used a 2011 civil war and its aftermath to acquire hundreds of tonnes of weapons, many of which remain under the control of his loyalists in the army, according to U.N. investigators.
The accusation, in a report released on Monday by experts charged with monitoring a U.N.-imposed arms embargo, highlights lingering risk in the West African nation, which has emerged from the crisis as one of the continent's rising economic stars.
Soro, often mentioned as a potential successor to President Alassane Ouattara, headed the New Forces rebels, who occupied the northern half of the world's top cocoa grower for nearly a decade and backed Ouattara during the 2011 post-election conflict.
"The Group (Group of Experts on Côte d’Ivoire) documented the acquisition of relevant quantities of weapons and ammunition, estimated at 300 tonnes, by the (New Forces) in the aftermath of the post-electoral crisis," the report said.
"Guillaume Soro directly handled the acquisition of the materiel."
The stockpiles represent around 30 percent of Ivory Coast's total arsenal, it said.
"The above-mentioned arsenal includes materiel brought into (Ivory Coast) in violation of the sanctions regime that is not yet under the full control of the military," the report continued.
Soro, who under the Ivorian constitution would assume the presidency were Ouattara to die or become incapacitated while in office, denied the accusations.
"(The investigators) are mediocre jokers," he wrote in a response to a Reuters request for comment. "All that's left is for them to accuse us of having weapons of mass destruction."
Government officials, including the defense minister and the government spokesman, were not immediately reachable.
Reuters last year documented the U.N.'s discovery of part of the arsenal, which had not been declared to government authorities and was being held at a military camp in the northern city of Korhogo by a former New Forces commander.
EX-PRESIDENT ON TRIAL
Other weapons stocks were found by the U.N. at a former military training school in Bouake - previously the New Forces' de facto capital - and on the premises of Soro's close protection unit in the commercial capital Abidjan.
Some 3,000 people died during the war in Ivory Coast, which erupted after then-president Laurent Gbagbo refused to accept his defeat by Ouattara in polls in late 2010. Gbagbo is currently on trial before the International Criminal Court, accused of crimes against humanity.
According to the investigators, the stockpiles include weapons seized by the rebels' so-called Zone Commanders from Gbagbo loyalists as the rebels swept south with French and U.N. military backing to support Ouattara's claim to the presidency.
"Although most of the former zone commanders have been integrated into the military, they continue to have independent political and financial influence," the report said.
Other weapons discovered under the control of former rebels now integrated into the army as senior officers bore the serial and lot numbers of arms shipments imported by neighboring Burkina Faso between April and August 2011.
Gbagbo's allies have long accused Burkina Faso and its ex-president Blaise Compaore of supporting Soro's rebellion, which grew out of a failed coup against Gbagbo in 2002.
The weapons purchases were arranged by Compaore's personal military chief of staff General Gilbert Diendere, the investigators wrote.
Compaore was forced to flee Burkina Faso amid violent unrest in 2014 and now lives in exile in Ivory Coast, which granted him citizenship. Diendere, who last year staged a failed coup against the transitional authorities that replaced Compaore, is in detention in Burkina Faso and was not immediately reachable.
Burkina Faso authorities issued an international arrest warrant for Soro earlier this year on charges related to his alleged support for the failed putsch in Burkina Faso.
(Editing by Andrew Roche)