Côte d'Ivoire: Mbeki Tries New Tack to Break Deadlock As Tension Mounts On Ground
 March 18, 2005

 After four months of failed attempts to break the deadlocked peace process in Cote d'Ivoire, South African President Thabo Mbeki is hoping to host the key players in the conflict at face-to-face talks in the next few days, one of his aides said on Friday.

Mbeki was mandated by the African Union after a violent flare-up last November to seek an end to the 30-month crisis in West Africa's once most prosperous and peaceful nation.


But he has made little headway despite hopes that a high-profile leader from the continent could succeed where others and the former colonial power France had failed.

As tension builds on the frontline, where 10,000 UN and French peacekeepers are monitoring an increasingly volatile buffer zone between the rebel-held north and government-run south, pressure has piled up on the South African president for a quick fix.

UN officials this week warned of a build-up of troops and arms on both sides of the line that partitions the world's top cocoa producer.

"We are seeing small groups of armed men moving towards the frontline," UN military spokesman Colonel Al-Khadir told IRIN. "It is mainly in the west, near the (government-controlled) towns of Guiglo and Duekoue, but also in the (rebel-held) town of Danane."

Charles Ble Goude, the leader of the pro-Gbagbo militant group, the Young Patriots said there would be weekend demonstrations in Guiglo and Duekoue on Saturday, and more to follow in other western towns on Sunday.

"There will be marches to demand the departure of (the French army)," Ble Goude was quoted as saying by Reuters news agency.

Taking a fresh tack, Mbeki this week invited the five main political figures in the Ivorian dispute to come together in South Africa "hopefully in the next few days to see what can be done," the president's spokesman Bheki Khumalo told IRIN on Friday.

An invitation dated 12 March was addressed to President Laurent Gbagbo, the leader of the rebel New Forces Guillaume Soro and independent Prime Minister Seydou Diarra who leads the reconciliation government that has largely ground to a halt.

Also invited were Henri Konan Bedie, a former president who heads the opposition Democratic Party of Cote d'Ivoire (PDCI) and Alassane Ouattara, the exiled leader of the main opposition party, Rally of the Republicans (RDR), whose fate is seen as key to the political solution.

Khumalo declined to confirm whether the five leaders had agreed to attend the talks.

 Clock ticking?

The proposed peace summit would come as the UN reviews pleas to increase its 6,000-strong peacekeeping force and strengthen its mandate, and France decides whether or not to withdraw 4,000 troops currently supporting the UN Mission in Cote d'Ivoire (ONUCI).

ONUCI's current 12-month mandate expires on 4 April and the Security Council is to begin consultations on a new mandate at the end of March, a UN spokesman in Abidjan said.

Meanwhile, the clock is ticking on Mbeki's mediation. In December, the South African president unveiled a four-month roadmap to peace, but despite this, Khumalo brushed aside all suggestion that the March peace summit would be a make-or-break encounter.

"This is part of the mediation effort. There are no imposed deadlines," he said. "We were asked to lead these negotiations and when you negotiate you must be patient."

"The issue of pressure is neither here nor there. We are taking the talks to their logical conclusion. What we are looking for is clear adherence to the roadmap issued last year," he added.

Mbeki submitted a five-point roadmap to the parties in December that included disarmament, originally to have been completed this month, the restoration of a power-sharing government and new legislation to eradicate rows over citizenship and ethnicity. But little progress has been made on any front.

"Frankly I can't see any way out. The situation is completely bogged down," Gabonese President Omar Bongo said in an interview in the latest issue of the newsweekly Jeune Afrique l'Intelligent.

"We're still in the starting-blocks," he said. "South Africa is a big country but it's not because you're a big country that you can understand all local situations."

Cote d'Ivoire's loyalist-dominated parliament was told this week by an independent committee to go back to the drawing board because legislation passed in December under the Mbeki roadmap failed to meet criteria set out in January 2003 by the Linas-Marcoussis accord, which is still seen as the main blueprint for peace.

The rebels meanwhile are refusing to return to the reconciliation government because of safety concerns.

And fears of a new breakout of hostilities have mounted sharply in recent weeks following an attack late February by pro-government militia against rebel positions in the northwest. Humanitarian workers say up to 15,000 civilians have fled the area and that militia groups and arms are rife.

 UN concerned

In New York last week the UN Security Council warned all Ivorian parties against the use of force and expressed deep concern about the flare-up of violence, warning of "the possible negative impact of the present impasse in the peace process on the holding of elections next October."

The top UN peacekeeper was quoted by news wires as telling the Security Council that the timeframe was "seriously compromised" and there is a growing feeling that the October polls will have to be postponed.

But in his invitation letter sent out to the five Ivorian parties, Mbeki insisted the vote take place on schedule.

He also said that "all those wishing to run be allowed to run," according to a transcript obtained by IRIN. This seemed to be a slap in the face to the Gbagbo camp which wants to exclude opposition candidate Ouattara from running, as they did in the 2000 presidential elections, on the grounds that he does not have two Ivorian parents.

"We know and acknowledge the fact that the exclusion of any sector of the population will not end the Ivorian crisis," Mbeki wrote. "The concept and practice of inclusion as opposed to exclusion therefore stands at the centre of our shared vision of a peaceful and democratic Cote d'Ivoire."

Many observers believe the October elections are in jeopardy due to the lack of deadlines in Mbeki's mediation and the fact that individual UN sanctions against those obstructing the peace have not taken effect despite being threatened at the end of last year.

"There are no deadlines, no threats and no clear options," said one Paris-based analyst who asked not to be identified. "Mbeki is doing what he can, but he can't bully either side into complying and the international community is not helping."

Venance Konan, an editorialist at the daily pro-government newspaper, Fraternite Matin, believes Mbeki "is likely to fail, despite all his good intentions."
"But that is the fault of our leaders and it has nothing to with Mbeki. The problem is, there is absolutely no goodwill on the side of any of the key Ivorian players to resolve this conflict. We can talk forever but many people   have the impression that both sides prefer war."

  UN Integrated Regional Information Networks