- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 28, 2004

From combined dispatches

PARIS — French President Jacques Chirac and U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan discussed this week a plan to send U.N. peacekeeping troops to the West African country of Ivory Coast, which is divided by civil war, officials said.

“We are making progress and have good hopes of seeing the right conditions come together” for the deployment of 6,000 U.N. troops, an aide to the French leader said after Mr. Chirac and Mr. Annan met in Paris for a working lunch on Tuesday.

A peace plan for the former French colony has already led to the creation of an interim government, but 4,000 French soldiers and 1,200 West African troops are currently keeping the peace between government forces in the south and former rebels in the north and west.

Mr. Annan proposed on Jan. 9 deploying more than 6,000 peacekeepers to the world’s leading cocoa producer in the name of the United Nations, but the United States objected.

Given the chances of seeing a U.N. force move in, France has decided to keep its own Operation Unicorn in place, and “does not rule out” the possibility of maintaining troops in Ivory Coast under the U.N. flag, Mr. Chirac’s aide said.

However, the details of any such deployment would “remain to be decided,” the aide added.

Mr. Annan’s proposal was echoed Tuesday by French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin, who renewed France’s own call for a U.N. force to take over peacekeeping operations.

“We have to put in place a peacekeeping operation. We have said all along that the United Nations is irreplaceable. We must support the initiative of Secretary-General Kofi Annan to have this force set up as quickly as possible,” Mr. de Villepin told the National Assembly.

He argued that a U.N. deployment would support the “concrete side of [peace] accords, that’s to say the disarming and demobilization of ex-military forces and militias, helping with the return of civil service infrastructure across Ivorian territory and preparing for future elections in the country.”

Instead Washington wants to see a regional resolution to the conflict in Ivory Coast, where former rebels have joined an interim government under a peace pact signed in France a year ago.

Mr. de Villepin said Mr. Annan’s idea would contribute “to the stabilization of the whole region and would make the deployment in Ivory Coast consistent with the other regional [U.N.] operations in hand in Sierra Leone and in Liberia,” two countries also emerging from civil wars.

The French foreign minister said he would head for New York on Feb. 6 to take part in a Liberia reconstruction conference “as part of this collective effort.”

Ivory Coast’s war was declared over last July but the country remains divided, with the former rebels still holding much of the north and west, while President Laurent Gbagbo’s army and much of his political support are in the south.

France said recently the situation on the ground had improved markedly in recent months.

“We are gradually moving away from a state of war,” the Foreign Ministry said in a statement, noting that prisoners on both sides were being freed and progress made toward disarmament.

“This new stage must be accompanied by greater involvement by the international community,” the statement added.

It said peacekeepers were needed to oversee disarmament and elections set for 2005 and that the return of international creditors was vital.

Separately, a Foreign Ministry spokeswoman declined to confirm a report that Mr. Gbagbo would visit Paris on Feb. 5. She said the visit, initially set for late last year, had been agreed upon in principle but that no date has been fixed.

Thousands have been killed in a civil war sparked by a mutiny of rebel soldiers against Mr. Gbagbo in September 2002.

France helped broker a peace accord 12 months ago that brought rebel leaders into a new coalition government. It said in the statement the so-called Marcoussis accord, which has faltered on mutual distrust, is now being properly adopted.

“Normal administrative functions have been restored across virtually all of the territory. Virtually all control points between north and south have been lifted,” it said.

Washington’s objections are mainly on costs grounds. With a scarcity of trained African troops and little money to support them, peacekeeping in Africa is expected to multiply this year in Liberia, Sudan and perhaps Burundi.

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