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The World Bank has frozen finance to Cote d'Ivoire amid a political crisis in the West African country whose incumbent president, Laurent Gbagbo, insists on asserting his leadership in defiance of the international community's wishes.

Robert Zoellick, the World Bank head, confirmed on Wednesday that the loans were stopped.

The World Bank's aid commitment to Cote d'Ivoire was $841.9 million as of January 2010, according to the bank's website.

"The World Bank has currently stopped lending and disbursing funds to the Ivory Coast and the World Bank's office [in the capital Abidjan] has been closed,'' a statement from the organisation said.

"The World Bank and the African Development Bank have supported ECOWAS [Economic Community of West African States] and the African Union, in sending the message to President Gbagbo that he has lost the election and needs to step down."

The decision drew a strong reaction from Gbagbo's team, with Yao Gnamiea, his special adviser on diplomatic affairs, calling the finance freeze unfair.

"This is a political deadlock, not a governance issue, and I strongly believe the decision is unfair, and uninformed," Gnamiea told Al Jazeera from Abidjan, Cote d'Ivoire's commercial hub.

"Cote d'Ivoire is a nation with its own legal system and institutions, and it will use all the resources it has to solve this problem."

France concerned

The World Bank's move comes against a backdrop of continued political tension in the world's largest cocoa-producing nation.

Nicolas Sarkozy, the French president, has urged French citizens to leave the country if they had the means to do so.

Francois Baroin, a French government spokesman, said on Wednesday that the country recommends that its citizens who can leave Cote d'Ivoire do so temporarily, citing "undeniable sources of worry" in the country.

At least 13,000 French people are currently believed to be in Cote d'Ivoire.

Gbagbo says he is ready to talk to rival Alassane Ouattara, who was recognised by the UN and other international observers as the winner of November 28 presidential runoff poll.

Ouattara was declared winner of the November 28 presidential runoff by the UN mission in Abidjan [AFP]

Gbagbo has also invited a panel from the African Union and other countries, including China, Russia and the European Union, to re-examine the results of the polls. However, he has vowed to stay on as Cote d'Ivoire's president.

Gbagbo's demand that the UN and French peacekeeping forces leave the country remains in place, and on Tuesday he said that "the international community has declared war on Ivory Coast".

However, the UN Security Council has rejected his demand and, on Monday, extended the mandate for the force - known as UNOCI - for six more months.

UN peacekeepers are currently guarding the headquarters of Ouattara at the Golf Hotel in Abidjan.

Patrick Achi, a politician named by Ouattara as economic-infrastructure minister, said he did not trust the Gbagbo camp's assurances that they were allowed safely to leave the hotel for talks.

"We do not trust these claims. We do not have any problem talking to [Gbagbo] but he has to recognise that Ouattara is the democratically elected president of this country," Achi told Al Jazeera from Abidjan on Wednesday.

Separately, Guillaume Soro, Ouattara's prime minister nominee, urged the international community to consider using force to oust Gbagbo, calling it the "only solution".

Speaking to French television on Wednesday, Soro said: "Mr Gbgabo has got the tanks out ... 200 people have fallen under the bullets of Liberian and Angolan mercenaries ... the security situation is very worrying.

"It is obvious the only solution to the crisis is the use of force."

'Real risk' of civil war

Earlier, Ban Ki-moon, the UN secretary-general, said that forces loyal to Gbagbo have tried to blockade the UN mission in Abidjan and that the country faces a "real risk" of returning to civil war.

Ban made the comments on Tuesday while briefing the General Assembly, and called on member states to prepare supplies to help the mission.

"The intention of Mr Gbagbo and the security forces loyal to him is clearly to blockade the United Nations peacekeeping mission and to suffocate the government of President-elect Ouattara," Ban said.

"We cannot allow this."

Ban said that forces had blocked UN patrols, denied customs clearance of supplies at Abidjan port and prevented delivery of supplies for more than 800 UN troops and police at the Golf Hotel in the city.

"I am concerned that this disruption of life-support supplies for the mission and the Golf Hotel will put our peacekeepers in a critical situation in the coming few days," he said.

"I therefore strongly appeal to member states who are in a position to do so to prepare to support the mission to assist with the continued flow of supplies."

Ban has said UN role "is now even more critical'" for the stability of Cote d'Ivoire and the region.

He said that the UN force "has also confirmed that mercenaries, including freelance former combatants from Liberia, have been recruited to target certain groups in the population".

In his briefing, Alain Le Roy, the UN peacekeeping chief, said that he is concerned that groups linked to Gbagbo might be preparing raids against the UN peacekeepers.

He said that mercenaries may have been recruited from Angola. UNOCI was attacked on Saturday and returned fire.

Source: Al Jazeera and agencies