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West African Defense Chiefs Meet to Unify Conflict Prevention - 2004-06-18

West African defense chiefs and commanders of the region's three United Nations peacekeeping missions are meeting in the capital of Nigeria, Abuja, to discuss ways to prevent renewed conflicts in the volatile area.

The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) is hosting the meeting in the Nigerian capital to review the security situation and to examine political instability in the turbulent region.

In one case, that of Ivory Coast, political instability has become a key concern as the nation struggles to move forward in implementing a peace accord signed last year.

Rebel and opposition ministers withdrew from the national unity government after a government crackdown on a demonstration in March and President Laurent Gbagbo removed three of them and withheld salaries from the others in retaliation.

Supporters of President Gbagbo have been calling on the United Nations to begin disarming the rebels and have held demonstrations demanding that the disarmament and demobilization process begins.

There is concern that conflicts within Ivory Coast could jeopardize the situation in the rest of the region and unravel the progress being made in Sierra Leone and Liberia in trying to disarm former fighters and end decades of conflict.

According to the United Nations, the commanders of the three missions in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Ivory Coast have been conducting joint meetings to work on a regional approach to such issues as the disarmament process and cross-border patrols. All are attending the Abuja conference.

The U.N. special representative in Sierra Leone, Daudi Mwakawago, says the cooperation of the three missions is essential to bringing stability to the region.

"You have a mission in Liberia, you have a mission in Sierra Leone and there's a mission in Cote d'Ivoire," he said. "These missions are cooperating. They are exchanging information, cross-border patrols, exchange of expertise that kind of thing. I haven't received any report of any cross-border movement of people with arms. I would say we control that."

The Abuja meeting is the ninth in a series by the Defense and Security Commission of the 15-member ECOWAS bloc.

The meeting is also expected to address the issue of maintaining stability in the region after the U.N. peacekeeping missions conclude.