The United Nations said it will do everything it can to locate areas where human rights abuses have allegedly occurred in Ivory Coast following disputed presidential elections.
Human rights groups have alleged that security forces loyal to incumbent Laurent Gbagbo, who refuses to cede power, have been abducting political opponents in recent weeks. The U.N. also believes up to 80 bodies may have been moved to a building nestled among shacks in a pro-Gbagbo neighbourhood.
Investigators have tried to go there several times, and even made it as far as the building's front door before truckloads of men with guns showed up and forced them to leave. A second mass burial site is believed to be located near Gagnoa in the interior of the country, the U.N. said. Mr. Gbagbo's government has repeatedly denied the existence of mass graves.
The U.N. has said the volatile West African nation once divided in two faces a real risk of return to civil war, but a top ally of Alassane Ouattara, the man widely recognized as Ivory Coast's president, said this war has already begun.
"In any country that records more than 200 dead in five days, as the U.N. has certified, it's war. When a country experiences a massive population flight of the population - more than 20,000 Ivorians who leave their country to seek refuge in a country like Liberia - it's war," Ouattara's Prime Minister, Guillaume Soro, told The Associated Press.
The U.N. has confirmed at least 173 deaths.
In New York on Saturday, the United Nations said Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon spoke with Mr. Ouattara by telephone and assured him that the international community was working to try to end the stalemate in Ivory Coast.
Mr. Ban said he appreciated "the restraint and patience being shown even in the face of provocative acts" and reaffirmed the United Nations' "principled and unwavering position on upholding the election outcome" that should have put Mr. Ouattara in office.
The secretary-general also expressed alarm about reports of egregious human rights violations, and said the U.N. mission in Ivory Coast is doing everything it can to gain access to areas where such violations are being reported - both to document any abuses and prevent others from occurring. Mr. Ban also took note of Mr. Ouattara's call for International Criminal Court investigation of alleged rights violations.
Human rights groups accuse incumbent Gbagbo's security forces of abducting and killing political opponents, though Mr. Gbagbo's allies deny the allegations and say some of the victims were security forces killed by protesters.
Mr. Gbagbo gave an address late Friday on state television in which he accused the international community of mounting a coup d?etat to oust him and said Ivorians were being subjected to international hostility.
"No one has the right to call on foreign armies to invade his country," Mr. Gbagbo said. "Our greatest duty to our country is to defend it from foreign attack."
Mr. Soro said on Saturday that Mr. Gbagbo would only leave power by force and that the international community will have to intervene with "legitimate force' to protect democracy in Africa. He dismissed Mr. Gbagbo's offer to invite an international investigation into the country as a delay tactic.
West African leaders from ECOWAS - the Economic Community of West African States - are due to arrive on Monday in Abidjan to negotiate Mr. Gbagbo's departure. They will be joined by African Union emissary Raila Odinga, the Kenyan prime minister who was widely believed to have won the presidential election in his country in 2007, but in the end settled for a power sharing deal with incumbent President Mwai Kibaki.
ECOWAS threatened to use military force to remove Mr. Gbagbo if he doesn't leave freely, but failed to persuade him to go into exile when its first delegation came to Ivory Coast last week.
Mr. Odinga's office said in a statement that he will first go to Nigeria on Sunday to meet with Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan, who also holds the rotating presidency of ECOWAS, before heading to Ivory Coast on Monday.
Mr. Odinga was chosen by the African Union to help in mediation efforts because he is not from the region and may be seen as more impartial than West African leaders.
The United Nations had been invited by all parties to certify the results of the November 28 presidential runoff vote. The U.N. declared Mr. Ouattara the winner, endorsing the announcement by the country?s electoral commission. But Mr. Gbagbo has refused to step aside now for more than a month, defying international condemnation and growing calls for his ouster.
Ivory Coast was divided into a rebel-controlled north and a loyalist south by a 2002-2003 civil war, and the long-delayed presidential election was intended to help reunify the nation. However, tensions over the outcome have sparked violence including several attacks on U.N. peacekeepers.
Ivory Coast, the world's top cocoa producer, was officially reunited in a 2007 peace deal. However, Mr. Ouattara still draws his support from the northern half of the country, where residents feel they are often treated as foreigners within their own country by southerners.
Col. Mohammed Yerima, director of defence information for the Nigerian military, said that defence chiefs from the 15-nation regional bloc ECOWAS met on Friday to begin strategizing what sort of assault they?d use if those talks fail. But his comments appeared to suggest no such attack was imminent, as he said the plans would only be presented to ECOWAS leaders in Mali in mid-January.