The United Nations is warning supporters of incumbent leader Laurent Gbagbo that an attack on the hotel where the internationally recognized winner of last month’s election is based could re-ignite civil war.
A pro-Gbagbo youth leader has said that Alassane Ouattara and his supporters have until Saturday to “pack up their bags” and leave the hotel where they are being guarded by some 800 U.N. peacekeepers and hundreds of rebels loyal to Mr. Ouattara.
U.N. spokesman Martin Nesirky said Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon is “deeply alarmed” by the youth leader’s comments.
Mr. Ban said that an attack on the hotel could provoke widespread violence, which could re-ignite civil war in the West African country divided in two by a 2002-2003 war. Mr. Ban called on Gbagbo supporters to “refrain from such dangerous irresponsible action,” Mr. Nesirky said.
The youth leader, Charles Ble Goude, is known as the “street general” for organizing a violent anti-French and anti-U.N. gang that terrorized the foreign population in Ivory Coast in 2004-2005.
Under a peace deal after the war, the U.N. was tasked with certifying the results of the November 28 presidential runoff vote. The U.N. declared Mr. Ouattara the winner, echoing the country’s own electoral commission chief.
Mr. Gbagbo insists he won, pointing out that the Ivory Coast constitutional council declared him the winner. The council, which is led by a Gbagbo ally, did so after invalidating half a million ballots from Ouattara strongholds in the north.
The United States and other world powers have insisted Mr. Gbagbo hand over power to Mr. Ouattara, but the political dispute has now lasted more than a month. For many, the credibility of the international community is at stake if it is unable to ensure that Mr. Ouattara takes power.
ECOWAS, the Economic Community of West African States, had threatened to consider military force after this week’s visit by a high-level delegation failed to persuade Mr. Gbagbo to step aside. However, the regional bloc later announced it was going to give negotiations more time and said leaders would return to Abidjan on Monday.
Col. Mohammed Yerima, director of defence information for the Nigerian military, said that defence chiefs from the 15-nation bloc 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.
Col. Yerima told The Associated Press he did not know how many troops would be able to deploy as part of a standby force, and he could not say whether such an operation would be forthcoming soon. However, he said that if diplomatic options were exhausted, the ECOWAS force would be able to muster the troops necessary to seize control of Ivory Coast.
“The most important thing is, the political option is the best,” he said.
Human rights groups have warned that security forces loyal to Mr. Gbagbo have been abducting political opponents since the disputed runoff vote. The United Nations believes up to 80 bodies may be inside a building nestled among shacks in a pro-Gbagbo neighbourhood on the outskirts of Abidjan.
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.
Simon Munzu, the head of the U.N. human rights division, urged security forces on Thursday to allow investigators inside. Mr. Gbagbo’s government has repeatedly denied the existence of mass graves.
A second mass burial site is believed to be located near Gagnoa in the interior of the country, the U.N. said. Those suspected victims are in addition to the 173 deaths already confirmed by the U.N. Mr. Gbagbo’s allies say that several dozen of them are police or security forces who were killed by protesters.
Chaos in Ivory Coast already has kept Mr. Gbagbo in power five years beyond his mandate in Ivory Coast, the world’s top cocoa producer that was once a West African economic powerhouse. The country’s long-delayed presidential election was finally held in October was intended to help reunify the country, which had been split into a rebel-controlled north and a loyalist south.
Instead, the vote and a runoff held last month have renewed divisions that threaten to plunge the country back into civil war. While Ivory Coast was officially reunited in a 2007 peace deal, 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.