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Ivory Coast leader tipped to lead West Africa bloc


ABUJA (AFP) - Ivory Coast's President Alassane Ouattara was widely expected to be named the next head of West Africa's regional body before a summit of the 15-nation bloc closes on Friday, diplomats said.

The two-day meeting of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) has been dominated by concerns over deteriorating security in the Sahel region that stretches across Africa south of the Sahara.

Sources said Ouattara would likely be elected to succeed Nigerian leader Goodluck Jonathan as ECOWAS chairman, a post with a one-year term.

Ouattara's election would mark the return onto the regional stage of Ivory Coast, recently shaken by deadly violence sparked by a disputed election.

One year ago, Ouattara was largely confined to an Abidjan hotel by his political foe, ex-president Laurent Gbagbo, who had refused to accept defeat after a November 2010 vote.

Gbagbo's refusal to quit triggered conflict which left around 3,000 people dead before Ouattara took power. Gbagbo is now awaiting trial by the International Criminal Court, accused of crimes against humanity.

Sources said Ouattara had widespread backing for the key regional post.

"Countries of the region feel they have invested a lot for Ivory Coast and see it as the culmination of their efforts," said a West African diplomat.

There are some countries that are not in agreement, according to one ECOWAS official. Nonetheless, Ivory Coast "has a good chance of winning. It's a way to encourage reconciliation in his country," the source said.

Insecurity in the Sahel, worsened by the influx of weapons from the Libyan conflict, was a major concern at the opening of the summit.

ECOWAS member Mali, one of the Sahel states repeatedly targeted by Al-Qaeda's north Africa branch, has also been forced to combat a fresh offensive launched last month by Tuareg rebels.

The rebels have attacked several northern Mali towns since January 17, part of a long-running battle to demand autonomy for their nomadic tribes.

They may have also forged a link with the Al-Qaeda's regional affiliate, France said this week.

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