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Ivory Coast Peace Process Gains New Momentum


French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin says he is confident an international peacekeeping force will be deployed in Ivory Coast within the coming weeks. Mr. de Villepin spoke at the beginning of a busy week of French-led diplomacy aimed at giving new momentum to the stalled French-mediated peace process in Ivory Coast.

Mr. de Villepin made his prediction after meeting with Ivorian President Laurent Gbagbo on Sunday, as Mr. Gbagbo prepared to go to Paris for a summit, and Mr. de Villepin prepared to take his argument for international peacekeepers to the United Nations in New York.

The French foreign minister said he believes the Security Council is ready to authorize such a force this week.

"I will insist on having a peacekeeping force here in Ivory Coast because we think that with the support of the French presence here, with the support of regional countries we need this new force here to come in Abidjan in order to support the new steps that need to be achieved to prepare the elections, to support the full security in the country," said Mr. de Villepin.

The United States has expressed concern about the size of the proposed force, which has been put at more than 6,000 troops. It would be designed, in part, to replace an African force of 1,300, which has been working alongside several thousand French peacekeepers to separate Ivorian government and rebel forces.

President Gbagbo said differences with France over how to deal with the Ivorian civil war have been put aside, and that France and Ivory Coast are working hand-in-hand to fully restore peace.

Mr. Gbagbo also promised that the interests of the French community in Ivory Coast will not be ignored. He says when he returns from France he will meet with leaders of the community, which includes several thousand business owners.

The two men spoke late Sunday after an unusually warm handshake session for photographers.

Supporters of Mr. Gbagbo, and the president himself, have accused the former colonial power of siding with northern-based rebels, who started their insurgency in September 2002. At the same time, France has been angry about a series of anti-French riots in Ivory Coast, and the killing of a French radio journalist by an Ivorian policeman in October.

But recently the Ivorian president has been trying to improve relations with France, meeting with several French ministers and saying their help is crucial in the effort to make progress on the French-brokered peace agreement.

The peace deal has yet to be implemented and rebels remain armed and in control of the north and parts of the west, even though they have just rejoined a power-sharing government after several months of boycott.

President Gbagbo will leave for France on Tuesday to meet with several French officials, before he meets with President Jacques Chirac on Thursday.