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Published: Monday March 3, 2014 MYT 3:55:02 AM
Updated: Monday March 3, 2014 MYT 3:55:52 AM

Thousands pack the streets as Ivory Coast's Ouattara returns home

ABIDJAN (Reuters) - Thousands of Ivorians flooded the streets on Sunday to welcome back President Alassane Ouattara after a month of medical treatment in France that raised fears of a return to domestic political upheaval.

Ouattara, who came to power after a brief post-election civil war in 2011, underwent a successful operation to alleviate pain caused by sciatica, his government said last month.

Though he walked across the airport tarmac in the commercial capital Abidjan with the help of a cane, he otherwise showed little sign of his recent illness.

"As you can see, I've returned in good shape. I'm doing well. I'm in perfect health," Ouattara told journalists and well-wishers upon his arrival in the West African state.

Thousands of supporters, many of them beating drums or holding signs of welcome, lined the long route from the airport to the president's residence.

Since taking office nearly three years ago, Ouattara has won praise from international partners for fostering an economic renaissance in French-speaking West Africa's largest economy.

Government officials gave few details of his condition during his convalescence, fuelling rumours that his health problems were worse than officially acknowledged and stoking concern over a potential succession battle.

"People were saying he was dead. I was very worried. I fasted for three days for him. He is everything to us," said Tieba Dosso, who wore a T-shirt bearing the president's image as he waited for Ouattara to arrive at the airport.

The sudden absence of the otherwise highly visible Ouattara highlighted how much Ivory Coast's stability is dependent upon the 72-year-old president.

Though security has improved since the 2011 civil war, sparked when then-President Laurent Gbagbo refused to accept his defeat in a 2010 poll, the security forces have yet to be reformed and are plagued by competing loyalties.

TOWARDS 2015 ELECTIONS

Preparations for elections due late next year are behind schedule. Voter rolls must be revised and negotiations over the composition of a new elections commission have yet to open.

"The 2015 elections must be the ultimate test of the reconstruction of Ivory Coast on all fronts," Doudou Diène, U.N. expert for human rights in Ivory Coast, said last month.

Relations between Ouattara's Rally of the Republicans (RDR) party and his chief coalition partner, the Ivory Coast Democratic Party (PDCI) of former president Henri Konan Bedie, have grown strained.

Ouattara has announced he would seek a second term and the PDCI's support would likely guarantee him a first-round victory.

However, senior PDCI officials have begun calling for a review of the partnership. Maurice Kakou Guikahue, the PDCI's deputy leader, last month announced a congress in October to pick a candidate.

The PDCI's doubts coincide with the reemergence of the country's third major political formation, Gbagbo's Ivorian Popular Front (FPI) party.

Though Gbagbo is awaiting trial on crimes against humanity in The Hague, the government last year released most FPI leaders from prison in a bid to encourage reconciliation.

Last month, FPI President Pascal Affi N'Guessan held a series of rallies to mark its political return.

"If the RDR-PDCI alliance reaches a breaking point the question is what happens next, because in Ivory Coast it's always a question of two against one," said Rinaldo Depagne, West Africa project director for International Crisis Group.

(Additional reporting by Alain Amontchi; Editing by Daniel Flynn and Tom Heneghan)

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