US eyes bigger UN force in Ivory Coast

The Obama administration said Wednesday it is in discussions with France and other countries about expanding the U.N. peacekeeping force in Ivory Coast to quell postelection violence and convince the west African nation's leader to step down.

The State Department said that buttressing the existing 8,650-strong United Nations force could be a way for the international community to show Ivorian President Laurent Gbagbo that it is serious about demands for him to accept the results of elections that he lost last month to opposition leader Alassane Ouattara. Gbagbo has refused to concede and has ordered U.N. forces to leave.

"We are in discussions with other regional countries to see if there are ways in which we can reinforce the U.N. peacekeeping force," spokesman P.J. Crowley told reporters. "It could be that that kind of reinforcement could be another way to send a clear message to President Gbagbo."

Crowley said the U.S. was looking to "make sure that the forces on the ground are adequate and, to the extent they could be augmented, what countries might be in a position to assist."

He declined to name the countries that have been contacted but noted that Nigeria is a major troop contributor to west African peacekeeping forces and that France has interests in Ivory Coast, a former French colonial possession.

Crowley said no decision on expanding the force has yet been made. But earlier this week, the U.N. Security Council extended the mandate of the mission until June 30, 2011. It also extended the temporary deployment of up to 500 additional personnel until the end of March, and added four weeks to the temporary redeployment of three infantry companies and an aviation unit from Liberia to Ivory Coast.

Earlier Wednesday, the World Bank said it had halted loans to Ivory Coast. The U.S. and the EU have already imposed travel bans on Gbagbo, his wife and political allies. The pressure to force Gbagbo out comes amid rising concerns about violence. U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said Tuesday the country faces "a real risk" of return to civil war.