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Five Years Into Ivorian Conflict, International Forces Disengage from Front Line

19 September 2007

United Nations peacekeepers and French rapid reaction forces are gradually pulling back from front lines of the Ivory Coast conflict, giving more of a role to Ivorian forces, five years after the conflict began. But, as Phillip Wellman reports from our West Africa bureau in Dakar, other parts of the peace process lag behind.

The United Nations Operation in Ivory Coast, known as ONUCI, says it has finished dismantling a zone of confidence that has separated government troops in the south from rebels in the north since late 2002. The conflict broke out on September 19, 2002, when mainly northern army officers clashed with other army personnel in the commercial capital, Abidjan, before taking over more than half of the country.

The recent U.N. withdrawal from the dividing zone, which served as a checking-point for traffic and a barrier for those carrying weapons, was stipulated during March peace talks in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso. These were the most recent in a series of repeated efforts to end the conflict in the world's leading cocoa producer.

Military spokesman, Major Sebastian Caron, says the confidence zone has been replaced by what ONUCI is calling a "green line," made up of 17 observation posts.

"There is no zone of confidence any more in the Ivory Coast from September 15," he said. "Our [new] mission is to observe and give a report to the ONUCI, in order to prevent any harm in movement able to put in danger the peace process in the country."

The extraction of ONUCI forces follows the recent removal of 150 French troops from an airport base outside the administrative capital, Yamoussoukro. The French force serves as a backup for the peacekeeping mission.

Colonel Xavier Pons, a spokesman for the French military in Ivory Coast, says that the decision to remove troops from the strategic airport was a result of what he describes as subsiding tensions in the country.

"The political agreements of Ouagadougou, [have brought about ] many positive signs and the situation in this country is more and more quiet, more and more calm," he said. "So we have decided to pull out troops of Yamoussoukro. It is a good sign for us that the situation is going in a good direction."

Pons says there are still 2,400 French troops stationed in Ivory Coast. He says he believes that number is necessary to ensure the force is able to assist the United Nations. It is less than half of what the French presence once was during the conflict.

The United Nations has not permanently removed any of its troops, but has reassigned those not needed for the new green zone to other bases in Ivory Coast.

Mixed brigades of rebels and the Ivorian army now patrol zones on the dividing line.

Gilles Yabi, of Brussels-based Crisis Group, says he believes adhering to the Ouagadougou peace talks is important. However, he says that the capacity of the Ivorian mixed units to maintain security of the former confidence zone -- especially in the west, which has historically been violent -- worries him.

"I am not sure that they [Ivorian army] have all the capacity to replace quite efficiently the U.N. forces on the ground, but at the same time, I think it is essential that there are some clear signs of Ivorian forces taking over the security task," said Yabi. "But the role of the U.N. force and the French force, I think, should remain important until the election."

U.N. spokesman would not comment on ONUCI's long-term plans for the entire country, but says that, in the near future, the green zone is expected to be reduced from 17 to nine observation points and, eventually, cease to exist.

"In two months, we will remove half of the number [of observations points]," he said. "We hope, because it depends also on the context. If everything is fine it will be in two months, so we will see in two months."

Despite this progress, election officials say a twice-delayed presidential poll may not be possible until late 2008.

The former warring sides have yet to make progress on disarmament, reunifying the army and giving nationality and election papers to what rebels say are hundreds of thousands of northerners long treated as second-class citizens.

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