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Ending Cycles of Violence  in West Africa Proves Difficult - 2003-12-23

Civil wars officially ended in 2003 in Ivory Coast and Liberia, following the deployment of international peacekeepers in both countries. But difficult power-sharing peace deals involving rebel groups remain unfulfilled.

Ivory Coast is struggling to implement a stalled peace deal, while in Liberia the United Nations is struggling to deal with the large number of rebel fighters who want to implement their peace deal, by exchanging their weapons for a reward.

In Liberia, there was an escalation of fighting in 2003, but peace talks in Ghana and the departure of President Charles Taylor into exile in Nigeria convinced rebel groups to stop fighting.

A U.N. mission with more than 6,000 peacekeepers has started its work in Liberia trying to improve security.

An ambitious disarmament program involving compensation has been put on hold after too many fighters, more than 10,000, showed up in less than two weeks trying to hand in their weapons.

The mission's spokeswoman, Margaret Novicki, says it was not ready for such high numbers, but that it is a sign Liberians are craving peace, after 15 years of nearly continuous civil war.

"The process did not unfold perfectly that is very clear, but nonetheless I think the fact that we have seen such large numbers of combatants who are anxious to disarm is a positive sign and I think that once we have all the structures in place to enable us to expand the disarmament program to cater for combatants from all the fighting forces and we are able to move ahead with our troops and deploy them throughout the country by early next year we will see the situation improving on a regular basis, and we are optimistic that the future for Liberia is going to be a positive one," she said.

In Ivory Coast, U.N. officials have also taken a lead role, although it is French and West African peacekeeping troops deployed there.

In recent months, U.N. officials have taken over mediation efforts between northern-based rebels, who started their insurgency in September 2002, and Ivorian President Laurent Gbagbo.

Rebels who control the north have accused Mr. Gbagbo, a southerner, of blocking implementation of a French-mediated peace deal.

The settlement includes changing the constitution so that many northerners considered immigrants are given the right to vote. It would also loosen nationality requirements on who can run for the presidency, opening the process to northerners, including popular opposition leader Alassane Ouattara.

So far, Mr. Gbagbo has said he will not accept the constitutional changes in the peace deal unless they are approved in a referendum, which he says can not be organized as long as armed rebels control the north.

Despite these differences, the U.N. special representative in Ivory Coast, Albert Tevoedjre, tells VOA he believes the peace process can move forward.

"Although it is slow, although it is difficult, although you have many obstacles that we have to overcome I am very hopeful that we are going ahead for peace and reconciliation," he said. "The process for me in 2004 is the preparation of the elections after all the peace process is to guide us towards good elections in 2005. If this could be done peacefully and in good faith, I think that this is the best way to hope that 2004 will be a way forward."

Liberia also faces elections in 2005, which interim leader Gyude Bryant has been mandated to prepare.

Before these scheduled elections, a London-based West African analyst, Alex Vines, says it is important for peace to take hold in both countries, because he says instability in the region breeds more instability.

"The swelling of instability around the Mano River Union that is of course Guinea, Sierra Leone, and Liberia and then the recent spreading of it into Cote d'Ivoire, it is a factor. This is still a really fragile area," said Mr. Vines. "Individuals that mill around these areas, the guns for hire, can profit of that situation."

During 2003, rebels and mercenaries crossed over the porous border between Ivory Coast and Liberia, fighting in both conflicts. Non-governmental organizations say there was also an illegal timber trade going from Liberia to Ivorian ports, in violation of a U.N. embargo on Liberian timber.

Illegal trading in diamonds, timber, weapons and other commodities often fuels African wars, including the conflict in nearby Sierra Leone in the 1990s.

In that West African country, 2003 finally marked the firm establishment of its peace process following the gradual deployment of international peacekeepers, the establishment of a power-sharing government, the disarmament of fighting factions and the organization of free and fair elections.

Analysts say that is the blueprint both Ivory Coast and Liberia should try to duplicate.