France wants peacekeeper mandate extended just a month until summit results seen

France has recommended that the UN mandate of international peacekeepers in Cote d'Ivoire should be extended by just one month until it becomes clear whether a peace summit in Pretoria on Sunday achieves a breakthrough in more than two years of slow-moving negotiations to end the West African country's civil war.

The current mandate of the 4,000 French peacekeeping troops in Cote d'Ivoire and a further 6,000 UN blue helmets drawn from several other countries expires on 4 April, hours after the Pretoria summit is due to take place.

South African President Thabo Mbeki launched a new mediation drive in Cote d'Ivoire following a collapse of the ceasefire and fresh fighting in November, but diplomats say he has achieved scant progress.

Now he has invited the leaders of the main factions involved in the Ivorian conflict to sit down together at the same table for the first time in nine months to thrash out their remaining differences.

"The talks in Pretoria would be critical and must allow for a resumption of the peace process," Jean-Marc de la Sabliere, France's ambassador to the United Nations, told the Security Council on Monday according to a UN statement.

"In that regard, he proposed the renewal of ONUCI's (the UN Mission in Cote d'Ivoire) for one month to allow the Council necessary time for its work and to permit it to have President Mbeki's report on the Pretoria meeting," the statement added.

Meanwhile, rebels who have held the north of the country since a failed coup attempt against President Laurent Gbagbo in September 2002, accused him of preparing another attack in the run-up to the South African peace summit.

"We have noticed in these last days the president has been reinforcing his ranks. Laurent Gbagbo is always playing games that put the peace process in danger," Fozie Tuo, one of the rebel representatives in the Ivorian cabinet, told a press conference in Bouake on Tuesday.

"We won't allow a part of Cote d'Ivoire to be attacked," added Tuo, who is minister for youth and civic service.

Officials in Abidjan and the rebel capital Bouake said both Gbagbo and rebel leader Guillaume Soro would attend the Pretoria summit along with Prime Minister Seydou Diarra, a politically independent former civil servant who has been trying for two years to run a broad-based government of national reconciliation.

Former president Henri Konan Bedie -- the leader of the main opposition party in parliament, the Democratic Party of Cote d’Ivoire (PDCI) -- and Alassane Ouattara -- the leader the Rally of the Republicans (RDR)opposition party who is fighting for the right to challenge Gbagbo in presidential elections due in October -- would also be there, their aides added.

Annan wants more peacekeepers

Against the stalemate back-drop, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan has called for ONUCI's mandate to be extended for a further 12 months. He has also asked the Security Council to bolster its strength by sending a further 1,200 peacekeepers.

The top UN official in Cote d'Ivoire, Alan Doss, backed that recommendation, telling the Security Council that right now ONUCI "would not be able to respond effectively should two or more major incidents occur at the same time."

The last time UN troops were forced to intervene to quell an outbreak of fighting was on 28 February when a force of about 200 pro-government militiamen attacked and briefly overran a rebel outpost on the frontline at Logouale in western Cote d'Ivoire.

But France, which has taken the lead on Ivorian matters in the 15-nation Security Council, is pushing for a stop-gap solution until the lie of the land can be established.

France has been increasingly accused by Gbagbo of supporting the rebels and has talked openly about the possibility of withdrawing its forces from Cote d'Ivoire, the world's largest cocoa producer, which was once the jewel of its colonial empire in Africa.

Last weekend, the powerful central committee of Gbagbo's Ivorian Popular Front (FPI) formally urged the French to pull out.

French president Jacques Chirac has said his troops will leave if Gbagbo asks them to go, but the Ivorian leader, who once relied on French military intervention to prevent the rebels reaching Abidjan, has so far stayed silent on the issue.

Cote d'Ivoire's ambassador to the United Nations, Philippe Djangone-Bi, told Monday's meeting of the Security Council that his government would only make its position known after the summit in Pretoria.

South African diplomats have said they want to use the meeting to sort out lingering obstacles in the way of Mbeki's political roadmap, which aims to reunify the country in time to hold presidential elections in October.

Peace plans behind schedule

However this plan, which is the basically the 2003 Linas-Marcoussis peace accord with new deadlines, is already running well behind schedule.

Many diplomats and political analysts fear it will be doomed to the same failure as a roadmap to peace drawn up in the Ghanaian capital Accra last July. That was the last time that the leaders of Cote d'Ivoire's warring factions came face to face, with African leaders pressing them hard to reach a peace deal.

Mbeki's roadmap provided for the rebels and pro-government militias to finish disarming by April, but the process has yet to begin and tensions along the frontline are rising. UN officials have warned that armed militias are increasing their activity, particularly in the "Wild West" of Cote d'Ivoire where the Logouale attack took place last month.

Mbeki hopes April summit will help break impasse and speed progress toward October elections

Nine ministers appointed by the rebel New Forces movement have boycotted all cabinet meetings, since Gbagbo's air force launched a series of bombing raids on rebel positions in November last year. This has scuppered the day-to-day functioning of Diarra's government of national reconciliation.

Meanwhile controversy still surrounds moves to revise article 35 of the constitution so as to allow Ouattara, a former prime minister supported by the rebel movement, to stand against Gbagbo for the presidency.

The opposition want Gbagbo to promulgate a constitutional amendment, already approved by parliament, that would allow people with just one Ivorian parent to stand as a candidate. But Gbagbo insists that it be put to a referendum, which would be difficult to organise while the country remains divided.

Article 35 was used to ban Ouattara from standing against Gbagbo in the 2000 poll on the disputed grounds that his father was from Burkina Faso.

Many of the diplomats speaking at Monday's Security Council meeting paid tribute to Mbeki, who was brought in by the African Union following the flare-up in fighting last November. But they also warned in no uncertain terms that time was running out, a message which the UN Secretary General himself has already driven home.

"There is a very real danger that events may spin out of control with incalculable consequences for the people of Cote d'Ivoire and the sub-region as a whole," Annan said in his latest report on the country, made public last week.

Doss, the acting head of ONUCI, cited several indications that the rebels were digging in for the long haul. He noted that the New Forces rebel movement had reorganised the areas under its control, creating five new administrative territories as well as opening its own police academy and launching a new bank.

"Even though that did not indicate an immediate intention of secession, it did reveal, however, that the New Forces foresaw that the crisis would be one of long duration," Doss told the Security Council.