Dakar — West African leaders want the United Nations to significantly strengthen its peacekeeping force in Cote d'Ivoire to ensure new efforts to end the three-year war there finally pay off, Senegal's Foreign Minister Cheikh Tidiane Gadio said on Monday.
Gadio said that the call for more blue helmets was one of a dozen proposals made at a special one-day summit on the Ivorian crisis, which brought together leaders from the 15-nation Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) in the Nigerian capital Abuja on Friday.
The conclusions of the crisis summit have not been made public. Gadio said ECOWAS leaders had been asked to leave copies of the proposals behind in the conference room and that the plans would be submitted to a bigger gathering of the African Union (AU) in Addis Ababa on Thursday.
A week after the Addis summit, the UN Security Council is set to examine the AU's ideas for reunifying divided Cote d'Ivoire, split between a rebel-held north and a loyalist south since September 2002.
"UN forces must be strengthened," Gadio told reporters in Dakar. "They must be strengthened in sufficient numbers."
He gave no figures but said that many more than a thousand troops were needed.
"Soldiers will even have to go house to house to recover arms" once a disarmament deal is in place, he said. "Some homes have become arms caches."
A total 6,640 peacekeepers are currently serving in the UN force, which is under Senegalese command, monitoring the buffer zone between the north and south with the help of 4,000 French troops.
UN Special Representative Pierre Schori had asked for 2,000 more men this year, but the UN Security Council approved just over 800 in June.
The Senegalese minister said added means and swift - "within 24-hours" - sanctions were necessary to avoid a new flare-up of war in Cote d'Ivoire, once the region's economic powerhouse and a beacon of stability.
Tension has been rising in Cote d'Ivoire ahead of 30 October, the date when Gbagbo's current mandate was supposed to end with fresh elections, according to the terms of the latest in a series of peace deals.
But like earlier accords, the so-called Pretoria deal crumbled and everyone -- from Gbagbo, to the rebels, the UN -- has acknowledged that the ballot cannot be held on schedule.
Rebels in the north have refused to disarm, pro-Gbagbo militia in the south have failed to hand in weapons, electoral registers have not been updated and the country is still divided.
Gbagbo meanwhile has said he has the constitutional right to remain in office until a new election is held, while the opposition and the rebels insist that he must stand down and allow a transitional authority to take his place.
"The fate of Cote d'Ivoire concerns us all," Gadio said. "It was the economic motor of West Africa, the region's most powerful country."
He said the proposals being passed on to the AU by ECOWAS were "very balanced" and should be acceptable to all sides in the conflict.
They were based on the original Linas-Marcoussis peace deal struck in 2003, but incorporated the later accords struck at talks in Accra and Pretoria.
French Foreign Minister Philippe Douse-Blazy on Monday called for a swift resumption of the Ivorian electoral process, saying presidential elections should be organised at the beginning of 2006.
"We must move quickly," he told Radio France Internationale.
In Dakar, the Senegalese minister said that whether the elections were held in 3, 6 or 12 months "the most important thing is that the people and the politicians must sign on."
[ This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations ]