Côte d'Ivoire

West Africa wants Ivory Coast peace force trebled

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By Kwaku Sakyi-Addo

ACCRA, March 6 (Reuters) - West African army chiefs called for a three-fold increase in the size of their peacekeeping force in Ivory Coast as rival factions from the war-torn country gathered on Thursday to try to end a dangerous stalemate.

The commanders, ending a meeting in Ghana on Wednesday night, recommended the number of regional troops serving in Ivory Coast should rise from 1,264 to 3,411.

They also asked countries in ECOWAS (Economic Community of West African States) to contribute 300 security personnel to protect members of a coalition government whose delayed creation is causing a steady rise in tension.

"The number of troops on the ground has to be beefed up early enough to provide a stable situation for a new transitional government," Lieutenant-General Seth Obeng, Ghana's chief of defence staff, told Reuters in Accra.

The calls for a bigger West African force underlined the severity of the Ivorian crisis, 5-1/2 months after a failed coup led to civil war between President Laurent Gbagbo's government and well-armed rebels.

The conflict has left the country -- the world's biggest cocoa grower -- effectively partitioned between north and south.

More than 3,000 French troops are policing a shaky ceasefire line between rebels and loyalists.

Several thousand people have been killed. According to the United Nations some 400,000 people have fled to neighbouring countries and as many as 800,000 are internally displaced.

DEADLOCK OVER GOVERNMENT POSTS

Ghana's President John Kufuor, chairman of the 15-nation ECOWAS, was hosting talks in Accra on Thursday with all the warring Ivorian factions. It was the latest bid to end a deadlock which has held up implementation of the Marcoussis accord signed in France in January.

The main sticking point is the formation of a coalition government in the former French colony. The rebels are demanding the defence and interior portfolios they say they were promised.

The Gbagbo government and the armed forces have baulked at that. Anti-French riots erupted in the commercial capital Abidjan at the end of January after reports of the ministerial deal reached at Marcoussis.

Gbagbo arrived in Accra early on Thursday. Officially, he was attending celebrations for the 46th anniversary of Ghana's independence from Britain but if the meeting on Ivory Coast makes progress he could get involved, diplomats said.

All three rebel groups and seven political parties who signed the Marcoussis deal were expected in Accra.

"We are very confident that something worthwhile is going to be achieved," a Ghana government source told Reuters.

"DO WHAT IS NEEDED"

Mohamed Ibn Chambas, the ECOWAS executive secretary, told Reuters on Thursday he expected the group's foreign ministers to approve the call for a beefed-up military force.

"We have to do what is needed to bring peace," he said by telephone from Accra.

The meeting of regional military chiefs said the force, with contingents from Benin, Ghana, Niger, Senegal and Togo, would be increased in size in two phases and would be known as ECOMICI, acronym for ECOWAS mission in Cote d'Ivoire.

Its mandate, endorsed by the United Nations Security Council, is to assist the proposed transitional government to disarm and demobilise the rebel forces, to protect civilians and to keep the peace.

The head of the Ivorian armed forces, General Mathias Doue, took part in the meeting alongside commanders from Liberia and Burkina Faso, both of whom the Ivorian government has accused of backing the rebels.

Reuters - Thomson Reuters Foundation
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