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US Ambassador in Ivory Coast Presses for Progress

The U.S. Ambassador in divided Ivory Coast says time is running out for elections to be held before October 2006, as mandated by the U.N. Security Council.

U.S. Ambassador Aubrey Hooks says it is time for all parties involved in Ivory Coast to get to work.

The U.N. Security Council gave Ivorian President Laurent Gbagbo an extra year in power and transitional Prime Minister Charles Konan Banny was appointed in December to ensure political reforms, disarmament, and elections take place before October 2006.

But there have been violent demonstrations in support of the president and against a recommendation by an international working group to dissolve Ivory Coast's reform-blocking parliament, sanctions against two protest leaders and one rebel commander, and little else.

There has also been a war of words between Mr. Banny and the head of the armed forces Philippe Mangou.

U.S. Ambassador Aubrey Hooks tells VOA such wrangling must stop.

"We still have eight months or seven and a half to organize elections that is adequate time if there is political will to do so," he said. "I would, however, like to emphasize that this is a process that needs to get underway immediately because while there is adequate time to organize elections, there is no time to waste, because it takes time to go through the process of identification and training of poll workers and doing all the things that have to be done to make sure that the elections take place smoothly."

Ambassador Hooks held a news conference in Abidjan after returning from a trip to the rebel-held north that has garnered lots of attention in the local media. He held discussions with representatives of the rebels, as well as local and international humanitarian agencies.

He told VOA why he made the trip.

"This was an opportunity to strongly urge the authorities of Forces Nouvelles [New Forces Rebels] to participate in the peace process, starting with disarmament, demobilization, reunification of the country, sending civil servants back in the north of the country and ultimately of course the organization of elections," he said. "It was also an opportunity to emphasize another point, and that is the integrity of the whole country. The American ambassador, of course, is accredited to the whole country. This was an opportunity to emphasize that Korhogo, Bouake and other parts of the north are all part of the same country and this was, as a matter of fact, the principle objective of this visit."

Ambassador Hooks' trip coincided with efforts to send teachers back to the north to organize school exams, possibly in March.

Friday, the ambassador will represent the United States in the international working group for Ivory Coast. The group will have new representation from Congo-Brazzaville, as its president now heads the African Union.

A new point of discussion for the group is how to get an independent electoral commission approved by all parties and working. Ivory Coast is under an arms and diamond embargo, but some civil society activists say a ban on lucrative cocoa exports would be more effective in coaxing peace.