The top U.N. envoy in Ivory Coast on Monday condemned intimidation tactics against U.N. personnel, saying armed men were threatening staff after the U.N. ignored Laurent Gbagbo’s demand for thousands of peacekeepers leave the country.
The United Nations has vowed to continue its mission despite the order from Mr. Gbagbo, who is facing growing international pressure to concede defeat in last month’s disputed presidential election and step aside. The U.N. recognizes his political rival as the West African nation’s president.
“Armed men have been coming to the personal houses of United Nations employees, asking them to leave and searching their houses under the pretext of looking for arms,” U.N. Special Representative Choi Young-jin said at a news conference in Abidjan on Monday.
Mr. Gbagbo’s demand has raised fears that U.N. personnel and other foreigners could be targeted in violence. Over the weekend, masked gunmen opened fire on the U.N. base in the West African nation, though no one from the global body was harmed in the attack. Two military observers were wounded in another attack.
The U.S. State Department on Sunday ordered most of its personnel to leave Ivory Coast because of the deteriorating security situation and growing anti-Western sentiment.
The U.N. says more than 50 people have been killed in recent days, and that it has received hundreds of reports of people being abducted from their homes at night by armed assailants in military uniform. U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay said there is growing evidence of “massive violations of human rights.”
“The deteriorating security conditions in the country and the interference with freedom of movement of U.N. personnel have made it difficult to investigate the large number of human rights violations reported,” Ms. Pillay said on Sunday in a statement released from her office in Geneva.
The U.N. Security Council is expected to meet Monday to discuss Ivory Coast’s political crisis and the mission’s mandate, which is due to expire at the end of the month.
In a statement read on state television on Saturday, Mr. Gbagbo’s spokeswoman said that 9,000 U.N. peacekeepers and another 900 French troops supporting them were to leave immediately. Mr. Gbagbo accused the U.N. mission of backing his opponent, Mr. Alassane Ouattara, and arming rebels who support him.
The U.N. and the international community recognize Mr. Ouattara as the victor of last month’s presidential runoff vote. The U.N. had been invited by the country itself to supervise the vote and certify the outcome following a peace accord after Ivory Coast’s 2002-2003 civil war.
About 800 U.N. peacekeepers are protecting the hotel from which Mr. Ouattara is trying to govern the country. They are in turn encircled by Mr. Gbagbo’s troops. On Monday, the U.N. said that the hotel had been completely blockaded and that people inside had not been able to get needed medication.
Meanwhile, the European Union said on Monday it would impose an assets freeze and a visa ban on Mr. Gbagbo and his wife after a Sunday deadline for him to step down elapsed. The United States is also prepared to impose targeted sanctions on Mr. Gbagbo, his immediate family and his inner circle.
Sanctions, though, have typically failed to reverse illegal power grabs in Africa in the past.
Ivory Coast was once an economic hub because of its role as the world’s top cocoa producer. The civil war split the country in a rebel-controlled north and a loyalist south. While the country officially reunited in a 2007 peace deal, Mr. Ouattara still draws his support from the northern half of the country where he was born while Mr. Gbagbo’s power base is in the south.
Mr. Gbagbo claimed victory in the presidential election only after his allies threw out half a million ballots from Mr. Ouattara’s strongholds in the north, a move that infuriated residents there who have long felt they are treated as foreigners in their own country by southerners.
National identity remains at the heart of the divide. The question of who would even be allowed to vote in this long-awaited election took years to settle as officials tried to differentiate between Ivorians with roots in neighbouring countries and foreigners.
Mr. Ouattara had himself been prevented from running in previous elections after accusations that he was not Ivorian, and that he was of Burkinabe origin.