E Europeans, Latin Americans fight for UN council

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UNITED NATIONS, Oct 16 (Reuters) Croatia takes on the Czech Republic in a battle of the new democracies while Costa Rica faces off against the Dominican Republic in the annual election for seats on the UN Security Council today.

Only two of the five nonpermanent seats on the 15-nation council that come up each year are being contested in the vote by the General Assembly. Burkino Faso, Libya and Vietnam are expected to take the other three as they are unopposed after being endorsed by regional organizations.

Winners will take up their seats on Jan 1 for a two-year period.

Nonpermanent members have no veto.

Diplomats said it was hard to predict whether Croatia, a former Yugoslav republic that has never been on the council before, or the Czech Republic, which served from 1994-95, would prevail in the East European contest.

One senior envoy said that after early predictions that the Czechs would win, it now looked ''evenly balanced.'' Other officials said a speech by Czech President Vaclav Klaus to a Sept. 24 UN climate change conference in which he cast doubt on whether global warming was man-made may have lost votes.

Croatia, for its part, is still perceived as having only just emerged from the wars that tore apart former Yugoslavia in the early 1990s, although another ex-Yugoslav state, Slovenia, was on the council from 1998-99.

Croatian Prime Minister Ivo Sanader and his Czech counterpart Mirek Topolanek held separate eve-of-the-vote meetings with U.N.

Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.

NO NEW EPIC Diplomats also declined to be drawn on the Costa Rica-Dominican Republic contest which, whatever its outcome, will mean that no South American country will be represented on the council next year.

Costa Rica has sat on the council twice before, while the Dominican Republic never has. Dominican officials said Foreign Minister Carlos Morales Troncoso had held more than 45 bilateral meetings with other U.N. delegations to seek support but Costa Rica has also waged a vigorous campaign.

Few, however, expect a repeat of last year's Latin American epic, when 47 rounds of balloting failed to give the required two-thirds majority to either Venezuela or US-backed Guatemala. After three weeks, both withdrew and Panama was elected as a compromise candidate.

Only failure to get such a majority can stop Libya, Vietnam or Burkina Faso. For Libya, election would be another big step in its journey back to international repectability after years in which the West accused it of sponsoring terrorism.

But human rights groups that call Libya and Vietnam undemocratic have already expressed dismay at the prospect of them sitting on the council, the powerhouse of the United Nations that can dispatch peacekeeping forces or impose sanctions.

Countries that will leave the Security Council on Dec 31 are Congo Republic, Ghana, Peru, Qatar and Slovakia. Remaining on it are Belgium, Indonesia, Italy, Panama and South Africa, along with the veto-holding permanent members the United States, Russia, Britain, France and China.

REUTERS SS AS1134

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