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Updated: December 22, 2010 19:37 IST

World Bank freezes loans to troubled Ivory Coast

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UN forces Stand guard on a street of the Ivory Coast capital, Abidjan, on Wednesday. Photo: AP.
UN forces Stand guard on a street of the Ivory Coast capital, Abidjan, on Wednesday. Photo: AP.

The World Bank said on Wednesday it had frozen loans to Ivory Coast as France urged its citizens to leave the West African country amid heightened U.N. concerns the nation faced a “real risk” of returning to civil war.

The United Nations and other world leaders recognize Alassane Ouattara as the winner of the November 28 runoff vote. Laurent Gbagbo, the incumbent who refuses to concede defeat and leave the presidency, said late Tuesday that “the international community has declared war on Ivory Coast.”

Mr. Gbagbo said in the televised speech that he doesn’t want “any blood to be spilled,” but maintained he was president of the country. Over the weekend, he ordered all U.N. peacekeepers out of the country immediately in an escalation of tensions.

The U.N. considers Mr. Ouattara president and is staying put, raising fears that U.N. personnel and other foreigners could be targeted in violence as tensions mount. The U.S. State Department has already ordered most of its personnel to leave because of what officials called a deteriorating security situation and growing ant-—Western sentiment.

French government spokesman Francois Baroin told reporters on Wednesday that France recommends that its citizens who can leave Ivory Coast do so temporarily, citing “undeniable sources of worry” in the country. At least 13,000 French people are currently believed to be in Ivory Coast, which maintains close ties to France and was once the crown jewel of its former West African colonial empire.

After a meeting in Paris with French President Nicolas Sarkozy, World Bank chief Robert Zoellick said on Wednesday “we already have” halted loans to the country.

“The World Bank has currently stopped lending and disbursing funds to the Ivory Coast and the World Bank’s office (in Abidjan) has been closed,” a statement from the agency said.

Details about the extent of World Bank loans to Ivory Coast were not immediately available.

“The World Bank and the African Development Bank have supported ECOWAS and the African Union, in sending the message to President Gbagbo that he has lost the election and needs to step down,” the statement said.

Mr. Zoellick said that the central bank with WEMU, the West African Monetary Authority, had also frozen its loans to Ivory Coast. He said he had spoken with Mali’s President Amadou Toumani Toure about the decision, and that the ministers would be meeting this week to “affirm and strengthen this approach.”

Mr. Ouattara has sought to use financial pressure to force Mr. Gbagbo out, appealing to the regional bank to cut off his access to state coffers, making it impossible to pay civil servants and soldiers.

Such a move could set the stage for mass defections and turn the tide against Mr. Gbagbo, breaking the deadlock between the dueling presidents in this West African nation.

Over the weekend, masked gunmen opened fire on the U.N. base in Ivory Coast, though no one from the global body was harmed in the attack. Two military observers were wounded in another attack. The U.N. also says armed men have been intimidating U.N. staff at their private homes.

Toussaint Alain, an adviser for Mr. Gbagbo, said he didn’t believe soldiers or people close to Mr. Gbagbo would carry out such acts.

The U.N. says more than 50 people have been killed in recent days in Ivory Coast, and that it has received hundreds of reports of people being abducted from their homes at night by armed assailants in military uniforms. U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay has cited growing evidence of “massive violations of human rights.”

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on Tuesday also said that peacekeepers will face a critical situation in the coming days unless Mr. Gbagbo removes a blockade around his opponent’s headquarters. Hundreds of U.N. troops are protecting the hotel where Mr. Ouattara is based, but they are encircled by forces loyal to Mr. Gbagbo.

Mr. Gbagbo said late Tuesday that people could leave the Golf Hotel, but Mr. Ouattara’s people say they’re still not venturing out for fear of a trap.

The U.N. has said that its supply convoys are still being turned back and that food, water and needed medication aren’t getting through.

“Any attempt to starve the United Nations mission into submission will not be tolerated,” Mr. Ban said on Tuesday.

He also expressed concern about fighters from neighboring Liberia entering into the growing political crisis in Ivory Coast. The U.N. peacekeeping force in Ivory Coast has “confirmed that mercenaries, including freelance former combatants from Liberia, have been recruited to target certain groups in the population, he said.

Ivory Coast’s 2002-2003 civil war saw the involvement of Liberians fighting on nearly all sides of the conflict. Liberia itself suffered brutal back-to-back civil wars that lasted until 2003, and the two countries share a porous, 370-mile (600-kilometer) long border.

Liberia’s president has urged citizens not to get involved in Ivory Coast’s latest political crisis.

Ivory Coast was once an economic hub because of its role as the world’s top cocoa producer. The 2002-2003 civil war split the country into 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 Ouattara 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.

Experts say there are few strong options for forcing Mr. Gbagbo out of office as there is little support for a military intervention. The United States imposed sanctions Tuesday against Mr. Gbagbo, his wife and about 30 allies, and the EU also has approved sanctions. Such punitive measures, though, have typically failed to reverse illegal power grabs in Africa in the past.

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