Lawmakers in divided Ivory Coast have approved a key reform measure, easing eligibility requirements for the presidency as part of efforts to move the stalled peace process forward. Parliament members from the party of President Laurent Gbagbo are now calling for a referendum on the change.

Before the reform was approved in a plenary session of parliament late Friday, Simone Gbagbo, the president's wife and head of his party's parliamentary group, said the change would have to be ratified in a referendum.

She said that the constitution makes this clear and that the parliamentary vote in favor of the reform should not be viewed as anything more than a call for a referendum.

Rebels and some opposition leaders maintain the reform should be enacted into law immediately.

Friday's voting followed heated debate in parliament over procedures and exact details of the reform.

Mr. Gbagbo and his supporters have been under threat of U.N. sanctions if they did not implement the French brokered 2003 peace accord. Northern-based rebels are being asked to disarm quickly now that progress is being made.

South African President Thabo Mbeki, who has become a key mediator in the peace process, is currently meeting with rebels in Pretoria. His aim is to help prepare Ivory Coast for free and fair elections in October 2005.

Many northerners support former prime minister and opposition leader Alassane Ouattara, but he had been declared ineligible in recent elections because of questions over his nationality. The new legislation would ease the citizenship requirements for presidential candidates, but it is still unclear whether Mr. Ouattara would qualify.

Earlier Friday, the parliament approved two other key reforms to expand citizenship and the possibility of naturalization of more northerners now considered foreigners.

But opposition leaders warned that lawmakers from Mr. Gbagbo's party had made changes in the citizenship law that do n0ot comply with the 2003 peace agreement.

In another major development Friday, Defense Minister Rene Amani agreed to have the Ivorian security forces begin joint patrols with United Nations peacekeepers.

Speaking to VOA, he said he understands the population has lost confidence in the army's ability to provide security.

Ivory Coast, once the bastion of stability in West Africa, has been split in two since September 2002. The rebels say they are fighting to give northerners equal rights.