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Germany urges debt relief for Togo to back reforms

LOME, Feb 11 (Reuters) - Germany's Vice-Chancellor Frank-Walter Steinmeier called on Monday for debt relief for Togo to support democratic reforms in the small West African state, which held multi-party elections last year.

Steinmeier, who is also the German Foreign Minister, pledged his country's support in comments to reporters after meeting Togolese President Faure Gnassingbe. He was the highest-ranking German official in 15 years to visit the former French colony, which was also once ruled by Germany between 1894 and 1914.

The European Union resumed full economic cooperation with Togo, a narrow sliver of territory wedged between Ghana and Benin, in November after a suspension of nearly 15 years.

This followed the holding in October of multi-party elections, one of the conditions set by the EU for normalising full aid and cooperation frozen in 1993 because of what Brussels considered Togo's poor democratic record.

The country had suffered decades of authoritarian rule and periods of bloody unrest since independence in 1960.

Steinmeier told reporters that many things still needed to be done to further democratic development in Togo.

"This can't be done without international support," he said, adding this should include debt relief for the country.

In December, the World Bank said it would ask donors to clear debts of some $135 million owed to it by Togo.

WILLINGNESS TO HELP

"If there is confidence that the direction of reforms will be maintained, I think Togo can be confident there will be a willingness to help. We can give a greater financial margin of manoeuvre to keep up the reform work," Steinmeier said.

"We think that after the elections in October, Togo is on the best possible path," he added.

EU officials are pressing Gnassingbe's government to push ahead with reforms of the judiciary and the security forces, and for the creation of a formal statute giving guarantees to the political opposition.

Gnassingbe's ruling Rally of the Togolese People (RPT) party won a large majority in the October elections, gaining 50 of 81 parliamentary seats. International observers, who included an EU team, declared the polls generally free and fair.

The opposition Union of Forces for Change (UFC), which obtained 27 seats, challenged the poll results. It called for the constitutional court to investigate after the election commission said more than half the ballot boxes in the capital had not been officially sealed and results had been recorded from polling booths not on official lists.

But the constitutional court declared the results final and irrevocable. (Writing by Pascal Fletcher)

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