Gbagbo to meet Chirac as UN decides on peacekeepers

[Cote d'lvoire] President Laurent Gbagbo.
This time around, the UN implicitly pointed fingers at Gbagbo (AFP)

President Laurent Gbagbo of Cote d'Ivoire flies to Paris next week for a long-delayed meeting with his French counterpart Jacques Chirac, to try and move the fragile Ivorian peace process another step forward.

The two men are due to have lunch on Thursday as the UN Security Council ponders whether enough progress has been made towards the full implementation of a French-brokered peace agreement to warrant the dispatch of a UN peacekeeping force to oversee the disarmament of rebels occupying the north of Cote d'Ivoire.

Diplomats said the United States, displeased by France's criticism of its invasion of Iraq, had so far been reluctant to agree to the recommendation of UN Secretary General Koffi Annan, that 6,240 UN peacekeepers should be sent to the West African country.

But Washington, which foots the bill for 27 percent of all UN peacekeeping operations, has not rejected such a move outright.

The Security Council decided earlier this month that it would consider whether or not to send a force of blue helmets in the light of progress made towards the full implementation of a year-old peace agreement by 4 February.

Gbagbo will shake hands with the French president 24 hours later.

French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin prodded Gbagbo into speeding up the legislation of reforms demanded by the Linas-Marcoussis peace agreement at a meeting in Gabon on 21 November.

Concessions were subsequently made by the Ivorian president to helped persuade the rebels to rejoin a broad-based government of national reconciliation which they had boycotted for three months.

A French embassy source said Villepin would stop off in Abidjan on Sunday on his way to South America to hold further talks with the Ivorian leader before his high-profile trip to France, which was originally scheduled for mid-December.

A tight-lipped official at the Ivorian presidency said Gbagbo would fly to Paris on Tuesday for a visit to "normalise diplomatic relations between the two countries."

Relations between France and its former colony have always been close, but since Cote d'Ivoire plunged into civil war in September 2002, they have become increasingly fraught.

Cote d'Ivoire is the most prosperous and economically developed country in West Africa and a good part of that wealth is controlled by the large French expatriate community which continues to live there.

However, Gbagbo and his supporters have frequently accused France of supporting the rebel cause in the civil war, even though Paris has deployed 4,000 peacekeeping troops in the country to keep the two sides apart. Supported by 1,400 West African soldiers, they have patrolled a ceasefire that has held firm since May last year.

However, Gbagbo felt that the French-brokered Linas-Marcoussis peace agreement gave too much away to the rebels and until last month he expressed misgivings about implementing it in full.

Anti-French feeling ran particularly high during the period from September to December when the rebels withdrew their ministers from government.

When French radio journalist Jean Helene was shot dead by a uniformed policeman at point blank range in late October, it was widely seen as a symbolic act of revolt against French influence.

Militia-style pro-Gbagbo youth groups, known as "Young Patriots" subsequently staged rowdy demonstrations outside the French military base in Abidjan, urging the French toops go home so that government forces could attack the north.

However, the atmosphere changed after Gbagbo met the rebel military commander, Colonel Soumaila Bakayoko on 4 December and the two men agreed in principle to begin a long delayed process of disarmament.

Since then, the rebels nine ministers have resumed their place at the cabinet table and both sides have withdrawn their heavy artillery from the front line.

And, crucially for improving relations with France, Helene's killer received a 17-year jail sentence for murder from a military court last week.

The scene is now set for a more positive phase of relations to begin between France and its former colony.

And providing the Security Council agrees to send UN peacekeepers to Cote d'Ivoire to bolster the French and West African troops that are already on the ground, the way will be open to move the country's fragile peace process forward.

This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information:

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