UN peacekeepers dismantle Ivorian buffer zone

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ABIDJAN, Sep 15 (Reuters) United Nations peacekeepers in Ivory Coast have finished dismantling a buffer zone separating government troops from rebels who seized the country's north in a 2002-2003 civil war, the world body said today.

The UN withdrawal from the 600 km wide zone, where troops mainly from Morocco and Bangladesh checked cars and forbade access to combatants in uniform or carrying weapons, was part of a March peace deal between the former foes.

The dismantlement is another step towards reunifying the country, once the economic jewel in French-speaking West Africa but which has seen its status wane since being divided.

''Yesterday we dismantled the last check point which means ...

that the buffer zone has been completely dismantled,'' said Major Sebastien Caron, deputy military spokesman for the 9,000-strong UN mission in the world's top cocoa producer.

Tensions eased after the latest peace agreement. President Laurent Gbagbo named former arch enemy, rebel leader Guillaume Soro, prime minister, tasking him with disarmament, reunification and the organisation of long-delayed elections.

Mixed brigades composed of 10 rebel and 10 government troops and four UN police (UNPOL) patrol within the limits of the former buffer zone while more UN troops now man a ''green line'' of 17 observation posts which will gradually disappear.

Jean-Luc Courtin, UN liaison officer to the Ivorian Integrated Command Centre which is in charge of the brigades, told Reuters the brigades still forbade those with guns or in uniform from entering the former buffer zone without permission.

France's 2,400-strong peacekeeping force in the world's top cocoa producer, which was scaled down following the March peace deal, this week withdrew about 150 troops from a base at the airport in the capital Yamoussoukro, citing easing tensions.

Despite significant progress this year in reconciling government and rebel sides, there has been little progress on the lengthy administrative work needed before presidential elections meant to reunify the country can take place.

The head of the Independent Electoral Commission said this week polls may not take place before October 2008.

REUTERS GL PM2035

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