Opposition leader returns, calls for peace, as UN mulls sanctions

Opposition leader Alassane Ouattara has returned to Cote d’Ivoire after three years of self-imposed exile, calling for peace as the United Nations mulls sanctions against leaders seen as blocking peace efforts.

"I would like to issue a call for union, for appeasement, and say that it's with much love that I'm returning to my country to participate in the political process, in reconciliation," Outtara said on arrival on Wednesday evening before driving off under the watchful eye of UN peacekeepers..

The leader of the opposition Rally of the Republicans (RDR) party, and a former prime minister, fled the country with the help of French special forces after unidentified assailants torched his house at the outbreak of civil war in 2002.

Presidential elections in Cote d’Ivoire are scheduled this year under the terms of UN resolution 1633, which prolonged the five-year mandate of President Laurent Gbagbo by up to 12 months when the country failed to hold elections on time last October.

Ouattara, who notably has support from rebels in control of the north of the country, was banned from running in previous presidential polls on the grounds that one of his parents was not Ivorian. Under pressure from peace mediators, Gbagbo last year pledged that his rival would be allowed to participate in the race.

Also on Wednesday, the UN Security Council extended until 15 December 2006 the mandate of the UN peacekeeping force brought in to maintain the peace and help steer the war-divided country towards disarmament and elections.

But the council stopped short of meeting UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan’s request for some 4,000 extra troops. Currently, the UN Mission in Cote d’Ivoire (UNOCI) has a strength of up to 7,090 troops and 725 police. The blue helmets work with a 4,000-strong force of French peacekeepers.

UN sources said an agreement on extra troops remained a possibility.

The extension of the peacekeeping mandate came ahead of meetings in New York expected to determine whether the UN will slap individual sanctions against Ivorian leaders seen as sabotaging the peace process, or inciting hatred and violence.

UN special envoy for Cote d'Ivoire, Swedish diplomat Pierre Schori, was in New York on Thursday to brief the council on developments in the war-torn country. According to diplomats, a decision on sanctions is expected this week or next.

"The mood is that sanctions will be imposed," one western diplomat told IRIN.

High on the list of potential candidates facing a travel and asset ban is Charles Ble Goude, leader of the nationalist pro-Gbagbo youth movement Young Patriots, according to the French news agency Agence France Presse.

His youth movement was behind four days of anti-UN riots last week that paralysed the government-run south of the divided country, and left at least five protesters dead in the western town of Guiglo. Northern Cote d’Ivoire has been in the hands of rebels for more than three years.

Protesters torched and ransacked UN offices and vehicles, and hundreds of peacekeepers were forced to retreat. The trouble has disrupted humanitarian assistance to some three million Ivorians, a million of whom receive food aid.

According to UN officials speaking on condition of anonymity, the UN mission in Cote d'Ivoire is bolstering security for its offices and staff in case sanctions spark fresh riots.

The UN Security Council has brandished the threat of targeted sanctions such as asset freezes and a travel ban since an outbreak of violence in November 2004.