The UN Security Council has agreed to send a peacekeeping force of more than 6,000 troops to Cote d'Ivoire to supervise the disarmament of rebel forces and presidential elections due in October 2005.
The council voted unanimously in favour of creating the new peacekeeping force on Friday after the United States dropped its earlier opposition to the proposal.
The UN Operation in Cote d’Ivoire (UNOCI) will formally come into existence on April 4 for an initial period of 12 months.
It will replace the existing UN mission in Cote d’Ivoire, known by its French acronym MINUCI, which includes a handful of military liaison officers.
Prime Minister Seydou Diarra, who heads a broad-based government of national reconciliation, recently announced that disarmament would begin on 8 March.
However rebel leader Guillaume Soro made clear on Thursday that his fighters would only hand in their guns if they were satisfied that the 2005 elections would be free and fair.
“The disarmament of our combatants is conditional on free and transparent elections,” he told reporters in the Malian capital Bamako following talks with President Amadou Toumani Toure.
Ivorian President Laurent Gbagbo has agreed to implement a series of political reforms which were stipulated in a French-brokered peace agreement signed in January last year. However, none of these have yet been enacted.
The reforms would extend land ownership and nationality rights to immigrants from other West African countries, who account for more than a quarter of Cote d’Ivoire’s 16 million population. They would also make it easier for Ivorians with a foreign parent to stand for president.
Following Soro’s remarks linking disarmament to the guarantee of free elections, rebel spokesman Sidiki Konate made clear that the rebels, who are officially known as “the New Forces,” had no intention of handing over any weapons for the foreseeable future.
He said 8 March, the date set by the prime minister for the start of disarmament “would come and go like any other day,” as far as the rebels were concerned.
Konate told the Abidjan newspaper Le Patriote, which sympathises with the rebel cause, that disarmament would take place in phases, with each phase of disarmament being linked to the implementation of political reforms by the government.
“We will have to discuss the timetable for DDR (disarmament, demobilisation and rehabilitation) and the position of the New Forces is very clear on this,” Konate said. “The timetable for DDR will have to take account the fact that political agreements will have to be linked to each major phase of disarmament.”
Konate did not elaborate, but the DDR programme calls for disarmament to take place in three phases.
The first will see the disarmament and demobilisation of fighters in central Cote d’Ivoire, in and around the rebel capital Bouake. The second will see fighters in the east and west of the country hand in their weapons. The third and final phase will involve the disarmament of rebel fighters in the far north of Cote d’Ivoire.
A total of 17 cantonment sites for government and rebel fighters have been designated and the first three, in Bouake, Yamoussoukro and Douakro in central Cote d’Ivoire, have already been prepared.
However, diplomats in West Africa are sceptical that the rebels will hand over any weapons at all before the UN peacekeeping force establishes a substantial presence on the ground.
UN Secretary General Kofi Annan said UNOCI would consist of 6,240 military personnel and 350 civilian police officers. He said it would be supported by more than 1,000 UN civilian staff.
Annan said in estimates submitted to the Security Council that the force would cost US$303 million during the first six months of its mandate, when spending on its deployment would be highest.
The UN Secretary General commended Gbagbo and the rebel leadership for finding away out of an impasse which had appeared to threaten the peace process at the end of last year.
But he warned that further obstacles could still lie ahead.
“There are some hard-line elements among the various Ivorian parties who remain determined to undermine the peace process,” Annan said. “They must not be allowed to succeed.”
Cote d’Ivoire is the third country in West Africa in which the United Nations has seen the need to establish a large peace-keeping operation to heal the wounds of civil war.
There are still more than 10,000 UN peacekeepers in Sierra Leone, which emerged from a brutal 10-year civil war in 2001.
And 15,000 blue helmets are being deployed in Liberia to enforce a peace agreement last August that ended 14 years of near constant civil war in the country.
The Sierra Leone peacekeeping force is due to be phased out by the end of this year, but UN officials are increasingly concerned about the need to retain a longer term UN military presence in the country, particularly in view of the potentially unstable situation in neighbouring Guinea.
The possibility that unemployed gunmen from Sierra Leone, Liberia and Cote d’Ivoire may drift into eastern Guinea to cause trouble was the main focus of two meetings of top UN officials in West Africa that took place in the Senegalese capital Dakar during late February.
Annan told the Security Council on Friday that he would put forward proposals for a “residual UN presence in Sierra Leone” stretching into 2005 in his next report on the country later this month.
West African governments, UN officials and western donors are all agreed on the need for a regional approach to defuse conflict in West Africa, since civil war in one country has tended to destabilise its neighbours.
Cote d’Ivoire, which once boasted of being the most stable and prosperous country in West Africa, plunged into civil war in September 2002.
However French and West African peacekeeping forces were dispatched to keep the government and rebel forces apart and there has been no fighting along the frontline since a ceasefire took effect on 3 May last year.
France has made clear that its 4,000 troops in Cote d’Ivoire will not become part of the UN peacekeeping force.
However a scaled down French military force will remain in the country once the United Nations takes over peacekeeping duties to provide a rapid reaction force in support of UNOCI. Its task will be to restore order quickly in any trouble spots that might arise.
“They will stay as long as the UN will stay there…but we will be phasing out,” Jean-Marc de la Sabliere, France’s ambassador to the United Nations, told reporters in New York.
The 1,400 West African peacekeepers from Ghana, Togo, Benin, Niger and Senegal will on the other hand be fully integrated into UNOCI.
This follows a pattern already established in neighbouring Liberia, where 3,500 West African peacekeepers sent to secure the capital Monrovia in August, became the nucleus of a UN peacekeeping force created in October.
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