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UN Commanders Meet to Coordinate Efforts in West Africa - 2004-02-13

The military commanders of U.N. peacekeepers in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Ivory Coast are getting together to coordinate their efforts in West Africa.

After meetings in Freetown in November and Monrovia in December, the three military chiefs got together in Abidjan Friday to discuss common strategy in the region.

Their agenda includes coordination with national armies, stopping the flow of arms across borders and the screening of persons and goods to prevent smuggling and the influx of mercenaries.

The head of the U.N. military liaison mission in Ivory Coast, Bangladeshi General Abdul Hafiz, says regional peacekeeping coordination is a new concept. He says it is particularly effective in West Africa, where the conflicts in the three coastal countries have been interwoven.

"The United Nations has recognized that the conflicts in the West Africa subregion have a regional dimension and then there has to be a regional approach to solve the problems and the crises that are existing in Liberia, Ivory Coast and Sierra Leone," he said.

The three missions have different sizes and are at different stages of their work.

The five-year program of disarming more than 70,000 former fighters ended earlier this month in Sierra Leone, where democracy has been restored. U.N. forces there, once numbering 15,000 troops, have been reduced by a third, with some of the troops going to neighboring Liberia.

U.N. officials in Liberia say they are still not up to the full contingent of 15,000 troops that are needed to start disarming the rebels.

In Ivory Coast, the U.N. has just 75 military liaison officers to help French and west African troops begin the disarmament process.

General Hafiz says the U.N. has been well received in West Africa.

"These U.N. missions in these countries where conflicts have taken deep root, people from all cross sections, they very much welcome the presence of U.N. to resolve the conflicts and then to sustain until the end, until a proper representative government is established," he said. "The U.N. missions are seen to be absolutely transparent and they are seen to be performing and delivering."

The U.N. Security Council is expected to decide by the end of the month whether to send a new U.N. police force to Ivory Coast to help the peacekeepers there. A year-old peace agreement there is yet to be implemented, and rebels controlling the north are slow to disarm.