Mbeki takes centre-stage in difficult quest for peace

First France tried to negotiate a settlement to the civil war that has partitioned Cote d'Ivoire for the past two years. Then the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and the United Nations tried to mediate a solution to the conflict. But to no avail.

Now it is the turn of South African President Thabo Mbeki, a leader of impeccable democratic credentials who controls the most powerful country on the African continent and helped broker peace deals in the war-torn Democratic Republic of Congo and Burundi.

He comes to the Cote d'Ivoire issue with clean hands as a complete outsider to the conflict.

Mbeki was called in as a peacemaker by the African Union after Ivorian President Laurent Gbagbo launched an abortive offensive to recapture the rebel-held north of Cote d'Ivoire on 4 November, breaking an 18-month ceasefire.

The offensive was stopped in its tracks after just two days when French peacekeeping troops destroyed Gbagbo's jet bombers and helicopter gunships on the ground in retaliation for the deaths of nine French soldiers in an air raid.

Following a lightning visit to the Ivorian capital to meet Gbagbo a week later, and subsequent consultations with rebel and opposition leaders in Johannesburg, Mbeki has announced that he is planning a return trip to Cote d'Ivoire within the next few days.

This time he will meet rebel leader Guillaume Soro in his stronghold of Bouake as well as Gbagbo, Prime Minister Seydou Diarra and parliamentary opposition leaders in Abidjan.

"It will be a hectic schedule and the president's visit could last up to three days," Mbeki's spokesman, Bheki Khumalo, told Reuters in Johannesburg.

South African Defence Minister Mosioua Lekota flew to Abidjan on Wednesday to prepare the ground for his visit.

A spokesman for the South African embassy in Cote d'Ivoire told IRIN on Friday that Mbeki was expected to arrive on 2 December.

Gbagbo aides say France no longer neutral

In the meantime, Gbagbo and his supporters are arguing publicly that France, which now has almost 5,000 troops in Cote d'Ivoire, is no longer a neutral player in the conflict and should submit its forces in the country to UN control or withdraw them completely.

And they are relying on Mbeki to press this view on the international community.

Mamadou Koulibaly, the speaker of parliament and a key Gbagbo ally who often reflects the president's thinking, said in an interview with the Gabonese international radio station Afrique Numero Un that the presidential camp expected Mbeki to prevent France from flexing its military muscle any further.

"We particularly expect him to maintain the idea that the French troops are no longer impartial forces, that the French troops should either be under the aegis of the United Nations or should leave the country in order to be replaced by a multinational African force that could be supervised by South Africa," he said.

French troops permanently stationed in Cote d'Ivoire, backed by reinforcements that were hastily flown in, prevented the rebels marching on Abidjan when the civil war broke out in September 2002.

France brokered a peace agreement on the outskirts of Paris four months later.

The French troops in Cote d'Ivoire were soon joined by 3,000 troops from other West African countries to form a peacekeeping force that has established a buffer zone between the rebel-held north and the government-controlled south of the country.

These African soldiers subsequently became the core of a UN peacekeeping force which is now 6,000 strong. But France significantly chose to retain direct control of its own troops in Cote d'Ivoire rather than putting them under a UN umbrella.

Gbagbo has made no secret of his distaste for the French-brokered Linas-Marcoussis peace accord, saying it made too many concessions to the rebels.

Relations between Gbagbo and Chirac have deteriorated

But it is still regarded by the international community as the unalterable blueprint for a lasting political settlement in Cote d'Ivoire and Gbagbo has grudgingly resigned himself to accepting it.

Although the Ivorian leader was tempted to set aside Marcoussis earlier this month in favour of direct military action, he has so far rejected all the alternatives that have been suggested to this blueprint for political reform and disarmament, which paves the way for presidential elections in October 2005.

President Abdoulaye Wade of Senegal received short shrift when he suggested recently that Cote d'Ivoire should scrap its current power-sharing government, which has proved ineffective, and replace it with an administration of independent technocrats to whom Gbagbo would agree to delegate real power.

Are October elections realistic?

Wade also expressed publicly the widely-held but seldom-voiced view that there is no longer sufficient time left to organise free and fair elections next October. The Senegalese leader suggested postponing the poll for two or three years, leaving Gbagbo in place as head of state until then.

But Gbagbo rejected these ideas outright. Commenting on Wade's proposals, the Ivorian leader told Reuters in an interview earlier this week: "If you open your mouth, it should only be to help. When you are unable to help, you should keep quiet."

So Marcoussis remains the one and only universally acceptable blueprint for a negotiated settlement.

UN Secretary General Kofi Annan reiterated this view on Wednesday as he arrived in Cote d'Ivoire's northern neighbour Burkina Faso on Wednesday for crisis talks with President Blaise Compaore, who is accused by Gbagbo of supporting the rebel movement.

"There is no military solution (to the conflict)," Annan told reporters on arrival. "I believe we must abide by the Marcoussis and Accra Three accords," he added.

The Accra Three agreement, negotiated at the end of July in the presence of Annan and a dozen African heads of state, including Mbeki, set out a timetable for legislating the political reforms agreed at Marcoussis and following them up with the start of disarmament.

However, Gbagbo failed to deliver the reforms by the end of September, as promised, so the rebels refused to start disarming on 15 October, as agreed, and Cote d'Ivoire's rocky peace process once more hit deadlock.

The president's decision to launch a full-scale attack on the rebels three weeks later failed to cut this Gordian knot.

The United Nations responded to his violation of the ceasefire by slapping an arms embargo on Cote d'Ivoire and threatening both sides in the conflict with further sanctions, including a ban on overseas travel by selected government and rebel leaders if they failed to resume peace talks by 15 December.

This threat appears to have had some effect. Gbagbo has announced plans to bring all the reform bills demanded by Marcoussis back to parliament for discussion and approval by 17 December.

Ministers suspended

At the same time, the president has shown his displeasure with the rebels and some of their allies in the parliamentary opposition by suspending nine of their ministers in Cote d'Ivoire's broad-based government of national reconciliation because they are not attending cabinet meetings. He has temporarily replaced them with interim nominees.

Announcing this measure on Thursday night, government spokesman Hubert Oulaye said: "The decision aims only to ensure the good functioning of the government and the good management of the state in this particularly difficult period."

Almost 9,000 foreigners, many of whom had lived through a coup attempt and civil war, fled Cote d'Ivoire after the violence in early November

"The president stresses that this is not a reshuffle, but only an interim measure which means that it will end upon the return of the appointed ministers to cabinet meetings," he added.

Gbagbo was forced into a humiliating climb down earlier this year after he sacked outright Soro, the rebel leader, and two other ministers. He was obliged to reverse their dismissal by the Accra Three agreement.

The crisis in Cote d'Ivoire was the main focus of discussions at a two-day summit of Francophone heads of state, which opened in Burkina Faso on Friday, but several events surrounding this meeting served to demonstrate France's waning influence over its former colony.

French President Jacques Chirac received a public lecture from the Libyan leader Muammar Ghaddafi that French troops no longer had any business on African soil, just before he made a ground-breaking visit to Tripoli on his way to Ouagadougou.

And the UN Secretary General, who was due to attend the opening of the Francophone summit, which brought together about 20 mainly African heads of state, cut short his visit to Burkina Faso by 24 hours and missed it.

Gbagbo meanwhile boycotted the summit, sending a junior minister to represent Cote d'Ivoire instead.

Nevertheless, Chirac used the occasion to remind both sides in Cote d'Ivoire that there could be no military solution to the country's crisis.

"We must send a message to Cote d'Ivoire that is both firm and friendly, so that all sides renounce the politics of violence and allowing things to get worse and the illusion of a military solution in order to renew dialogue which is the only road that will lead to peace," Chirac told the summit's opening session.

In Abidjan, meanwhile, life is slowly getting back to normal following the latest bout of violence, which led to the evacuation of nearly 9,000 mainly French expatriates and clashes between French troops and pro-Gbagbo demonstrators in which 57 people were killed, according to the government.

The FM relays of the BBC, Radio France Internationale and Afrique Numero Un, which many Ivorians rely on for accurate and independent information about events in their country, were back on air on Thursday after being silenced by the government for three weeks.