The Bush administration's top African policy official says the United States is encouraging dialogue between the Ivory Coast government and army rebels. Assistant Secretary of State Walter Kansteiner is just back from an Africa trip that included a stop in Ivory Coast, and spoke to reporters Tuesday.
The Bush administration is treading a fine line in its approach to the Ivory Coast conflict: on the one hand supporting the elected government of President Laurent Gbagbo, but at the same time urging authorities in Abidjan to try to engage the rebels and address their grievances.
At a briefing here, Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Walter Kansteiner said the United States is lending diplomatic support to peace efforts by the West African economic community (ECOWAS), and its point man an in contacts with the Ivorian parties, Senegalese Foreign Minister Cheikh Tidiane Gadio.
He endorsed Mr. Gadio's attempts to get a cessation of hostilities and bring both sides to the table. And while stressing the legitimacy of the Gbagbo government, he said it needs to show flexibility:
"We are encouraged that Senegal and Foreign Minister Gadio and ECOWAS in general is doing that. And we want to be supportive of that," said Mr. Kansteiner. "But we were sending strong signals to the Ivorian government that flexibility is the name of the game right now. And we fully support them, they are the elected government, and we recognize that this is an important principle that we have to stand by, that a rebel group, in Africa or elsewhere, simply cannot come to the fore by the barrel of a gun. And so we encouraged him to be flexible. But at the same time recognizing that he is the right government of the day."
Mr. Kansteiner held talks with President Gbagbo in Abidjan last Wednesday, and also discussed the fighting later with officials in neighboring Guinea before heading back to Washington.
He said the conflict, which erupted last month, is more complicated than it has been depicted in press accounts, namely as a fight between the Christian-dominated government and rebels in the mainly-Muslim north.
He said there are religious overtones, but that economic disparities between the urbanized coastal region and the less-privileged interior are also a factor, as is xenophobia, the notion that southerners are the only pure Ivorians.
The assistant secretary said he raised that issue with President Gbagbo and welcomed an address he gave late last week in which he said that Ivorians need to be tolerant and reach out to other regions and nationalities.
Though it grew out of a dispute over downsizing the army, Mr. Kansteiner said the Ivorian fighting is far more than a "weekend mutiny," and threatens to plunge what had been one of Africa's most stable countries into a "serious" civil war.
Mr. Kansteiner also visited Gabon and the West African island state of Sao Tome and Principe in the trip spanning two weeks. He said his five-day stay in Gabon focussed on ways the United States can support that government's plans to set aside wide areas of the Congo River basin for parks and nature reserves.
He denied what he said were "perplexing" news reports that the United States is seeking to set up military installations in Sao Tome and Principe.
He said he did discuss with officials there, ways the United States can help the country protect its marine resources from foreign fishing vessels he said are illegally depleting its coastal resources.
Mr. Kansteiner suggested that could involve helping train and equip a coast guard for Sao Tome and Principe, which currently has no such capability, and said the United States is also sounding out the European Union for possible help as well.