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West Africa Keeping Close Tabs on Ivory Coast Peace Talks

West African nations are keeping a close eye on the Ivory Coast peace negotiations under way in France. Analysts say the region has much to lose economically if the talks do not succeed in bringing peace.

For months, analysts have warned that a drawn-out conflict in Ivory Coast could economically devastate the region. The country, the world's largest producer of cocoa and one of the largest exporters of coffee, is the wealthiest of its neighbors.

Ivory Coast alone accounts for 40 percent of the total economic output of the eight-nation West African Economic and Monetary Union, a grouping of Francophone nations that share a common currency.

Kwame Karikari of the Media Foundation for West Africa, a research organization based in Accra, Ghana, has been following the economic effects of Ivorian crisis since hostilities broke out last September.

"Cote d'Ivoire is well-known for its remarkable economic progress over the decades and a slump that necessarily comes with the conflict there means so much stress on neighboring countries, in terms of food production, in terms of employment," he noted. " There are so many hundreds of thousands of Burkinabe and Malian [immigrant workers] who live there."

In better times, Ivory Coast welcomed millions of immigrant workers from neighboring poorer nations.

Now, those workers have been leaving by the tens of thousands fleeing attacks by Ivorians who blame them not only for a general economic decline in the country but for inciting the rebellion. The massive influx of returnees has placed strains on Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger, which are too poor to offer them employment or accommodations.

Observers say the economic impact on landlocked nations that depended on Ivory Coast's ports has already been great. Access to Ivorian ports has been cut off, since rail lines and highways pass through the rebel zones in the north of Ivory Coast.

Mali and Burkina Faso, which used to use the port of Abidjan for their exports and imports, have had to look to harbors in Dakar, Senegal or Tema, in Ghana. The switch has meant higher costs for overland transportation. As a result, prices for manufactured goods have skyrocketed in recent months in Mali and Burkina Faso.

The rebel conflict is also threatening Abidjan's position as a regional business hub. Officials with foreign corporations say a curfew, although relaxed recently, and general uncertainty are making operations difficult.

The African Development Bank, which is headquartered in Abidjan and employs thousands, has kept open the possibility of moving its offices to Tunisia.