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Updated: January 21, 2011 18:58 IST

Gbagbo orders UN vehicles to be searched in Ivory Coast

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Ivory Coast President Laurent Gbagbo. File photo: AP.
Ivory Coast President Laurent Gbagbo. File photo: AP.

"I think it is pretty safe to say that it would not be legal to search (the vehicles)," U.N. spokeswoman Corinne Momal-Vanian in Geneva said on Friday. "This is just one more type of harassment."

Ivory Coast’s incumbent leader Laurent Gbagbo is ordering the military to stop and search U.N. vehicles, the latest escalation of hostilities between the man who refuses to leave office and the global body that declared his rival the election winner.

The move comes after a series of attacks on U.N. vehicles and peacekeepers in the volatile West African nation. Last week, mobs and security forces allied to Mr. Gbagbo attacked at least six U.N. vehicles, setting some ablaze and wounding two people.

“I think it is pretty safe to say that it would not be legal to search (the vehicles),” U.N. spokeswoman Corinne Momal-Vanian in Geneva said on Friday. “This is just one more type of harassment.”

Local U.N. officials rejected the order and said international law gives the U.N. freedom of movement.

“We hope and expect that this freedom will be respected,” said local U.N. mission spokesman Hamadoun Toure.

He did not say what U.N. staff would do if their vehicles were stopped by local security forces.

“We are not in a confrontational mode,” Mr. Toure said.

Col. Hilaire Gohourou announced the order on state television on Thursday evening.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has strongly condemned the violence directed at U.N. personnel, saying it constitutes crimes under international law.

Mr. Gbagbo’s government has already tried to order U.N. peacekeepers out of the country, claiming that they are no longer impartial after the U.N. certified election results showing Alassane Ouattara won the November 28 presidential runoff vote.

The U.N. Security Council voted on Wednesday to send an additional 2,000 troops.

The U.N. also on Friday urged nearby countries to allow Ivorian refugees to stay. Tens of thousands have fled to neighbouring Liberia, with others fleeing to nearby Guinea, Ghana, Mali and Burkina Faso.

While Mr. Gbagbo continues to occupy the presidential palace, the internationally recognized winner of the vote has been forced to live barricaded inside a hotel. Mr. Ouattara is being protected by a cordon of some 800 U.N. peacekeepers, who have turned the Golf Hotel into a fort surrounded by barbed wire.

The West African bloc of countries known as ECOWAS has threatened to oust Mr. Gbagbo by force if negotiations fail, but has set no deadline for such an intervention.

Ivory Coast was divided into a rebel-controlled north and a loyalist south by a 2002-2003 civil war. The country was officially reunited in a 2007 peace deal, but the long-delayed presidential election was intended to help reunify the nation.

But at least 260 people have been killed in violence since the vote. The U.N. said on Thursday that nearly two dozen girls and women had also been raped in the country’s west. The U.N. also cited one case where it said security forces loyal to Mr. Gbagbo had used sexual torture techniques on at least one Ouattara supporter.

There was no immediate reaction from Mr. Gbagbo’s camp, though his spokesman has previously denied allegations that security forces were behind cases of abduction and torture.

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