Officials at the United Nations Security Council are evaluating a new peace deal for Ivory Coast. The pact was reached earlier this month by President Laurent Gbagbo and rebel leader Guillaume Soro to reunite the world's leading cocoa producer, divided since late 2002. The deal includes controversial provisions for a gradual retreat of U.N. and French peacekeepers, as well as several other alterations to the previous U.N.-mandated accord. VOA's Nico Colombant reports from our West Africa bureau in Dakar.

The spokesman for the French defense ministry, Jean-Francois Bureau, says whatever the Security Council decides will be applied.

Bureau says the mandate of international forces in Ivory Coast was to be re-evaluated in June anyway.

The presence of French peacekeepers has been controversial, but also crucial to stopping full-scale fighting from starting up again.

The new deal indicates French and U.N forces should leave a buffer zone between the government-run south and rebel-held north, and instead set up observation posts along a so-called green line, while rebels reintegrate into the Ivorian army.

Africa Analyst Kissy Agyeman, with London-based Global Insight, does not believe the international pull-out should be done too quickly.

"An immediate withdrawal could indeed lead to an escalation of violence," she said. "If the country were to implode, because of the withdrawal of troops, the finger of blame would of course be pointed at the U.N. and French forces so I do not think it is in either of their interest to withdraw their troops immediately."

The deal also calls for an authorization to import light weapons, despite a U.N. arms embargo against Ivory Coast, and to lift individual U.N. sanctions targeting several Ivorians.

It also calls for a new government by mid-April, putting in doubt the future of current U.N.-mandated reconciliation Prime Minister Charles Konan Banny.

Agyeman says Mr. Gbagbo was ignoring the previous U.N resolution.

"[Mr.] Gbagbo was really sidestepping that resolution and he clearly did not respect it," she added. "Charles [Konan] Banny, the prime minister, was very much marginalized even though he was put there really by the international community."

Mr. Gbagbo said an African solution to the Ivory Coast problem was needed. The deal was signed in Burkina Faso, where many of the Ivorian rebel leaders are based.

In a speech following the deal, Mr. Gbagbo pledged to do everything in his power to make sure this deal, unlike previous ones, gets implemented.

Rebel spokesman Sidiki Konate also gave his assurances.

"I hope that we will do our best so that we get peace for this agreement," he said. "I know that this agreement is very special. The context, the spirit are not the same than with other agreements that we signed."

Another rebel official says Mr. Soro is being very careful in possibly considering the post of prime minister for himself, and that he will maybe seek a new U.N. resolution to clearly define such a role.

The former head of the U.N peacekeeping mission in Ivory Coast, Pierre Schori, who has yet to be replaced, says it is clear the rebels and President Gbagbo must accomplish, what was called for in other peace deals but always broke down amid mistrust.

"This is the moment of truth. Cote d'Ivoire is a rich country. It should not be where it is now," he said. "With political will from the main actors, you can break the deadlock and improve the situation, bring both peace, reconciliation, disarmament, identification and elections."

Rebels said they took up arms to make sure millions of undocumented northerners could vote in a free and fair election. The vote constitutionally scheduled for October 2005 has already been pushed back twice.

The new deal does not give a precise date for the election, while also giving more power to Mr. Gbagbo in organizing a new, simplified identification scheme.

A spokesman for the former ruling PDCI party, Niamkey Koffi, says he hopes the deal can be implemented fairly, but fears Mr. Gbagbo may seek to serve his own cause to stay in power.

"We are just hopeful and we are also doubtful because we know the man and we know his plan," said Koffi.

Analyst Agyeman says these fears are well founded.

"[Mr.] Gbagbo, he is intelligent, he is very adept and he is good at political maneuvering," said Agyeman. "So I think that what he really wants is to maintain power and any agreement that can enable that is what he will probably push forward."

Mr. Gbagbo himself called for the talks in Burkina Faso which led to the deal, which he called "direct dialogue."

He came to power in 2000, after an election he himself called chaotic, when he claimed victory over the country's first post-coup military ruler, Robert Guei, who had excluded the two other main opposition leaders from running.

Mr. Guei and many members of his family were killed on the day the rebel insurgency started, in circumstances that remain unclear. The new deal also calls for a general amnesty for those involved in the civil war.