|Cote d'Ivoire's military and security forces remain loyal to incumbent president Laurent Gbagbo [AFP]
The UN repeated on Thursday its allegation that security forces loyal to Laurent Gbagbo, the internationally isolated Cote d'Ivoire president, are blocking access to sites suspected of being mass graves, as the possibility of genocide is raised in the country.
Gbagbo's government has repeatedly denied that any mass graves exist, but investigators believe as many as 80 bodies may be in one building that UN personnel are being disallowed to enter.
Human rights groups have accused Gbagbo's security forces of abducting and torturing political opponents since the disputed presidential run-off poll on Nov 28. The UN says that Gbagbo lost the election and, along with the international community, recognises Alassane Ouattara as the winner.
UN investigators have cited dozens of reported cases of disappearances, and nearly 500 arrests and detentions.
They said that security forces accompanied by masked men with rocket launchers prevented UN personnel from reaching the scene of one mass grave identified by witnesses in a pro-Gbagbo residential neighbourhood on the outskirts of Abidjan, the country's commercial capital.
A second mass burial site is believed to be located near Gagnoa, in the interior of the country, the UN said.
On Thursday, Francis Deng, special adviser to the UN secretary-general on the prevention of genocide, and Edward Luck, also a special adviser, warned that the incitements to violence allegedly perpetrated by some political leaders in Cote d'Ivoire "are highly irresponsible".
They noted that there "are continuing reports, so far uncomfirmable, of serious human rights violations by supporters of Laurent Gbagbo ... as well as the use of inflammatory speech to incite hatred and violence", in a statement released by the UN.
Also on Thursday, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) said that it was "deeply concerned" about the deteriorating humanitarian situation in the country, and that it would be stepping up its activities "for those arrested, injured and displaced, and for refugees in neighbouring countries".
Thousands of refugees, meanwhile, continue to flee post-election violence to Liberia, while cocoa merchants are increasingly smuggling beans into the neighbouring country amidst fears that supplies could get held up at Ivorian ports.
A fresh wave of tens of thousands of Ivorian refugees has added to the 14,000 people who were already registered by the UNHCR in eastern Liberia last week.
UN secretary-general Ban Ki-Moon on Thursday warned Gbagbo's supporters against marching on Ouattara's headquarters at the Golf Hotel in Abidjan, a UN spokesman said.
His statement comes after Charles Ble Goude, Gbagbo's minister for youth and employment and leader of the pro-Gbagbo "Young Patriot" movement, called on supporters to seize Ouattara's headquarters on Jan 1.
The firebrand Gbagbo loyalist, known as the incumbent's 'street general', told the Le Temps newspaper that Ouattara and his prime minister "have until January 1, 2011, to pack their bags and leave the Golf Hotel".
Ban asserted that "UNOCI [the UN mission in Cote d'Ivoire] is authorised to use all necessary means to protect its personnel, as well as the government officials and other civilians at these premises of the hotel," according to the statement.
Gbagbo lawyers arrive
Two famous French lawyers, one of them best known for defending Nazi Gestapo officer Klaus Barbie, arrived in Cote d'Ivoire on Thursday to defend Gbagbo.
Roland Dumas, a former foreign minister who has been tried and acquitted in a French political corruption case, and Jacques Verges, who is best known for defending Barbie but also has links with crime lord Carlos 'the Jackal' and Serbian dictator Slobodan Milosevic, met with Gbagbo to discuss the case.
"We are going to draw up a report and then we are going to defend the current authorities," 88-year-old Dumas said after the meeting in Abidjan.
Verges said that Gbagbo was a symbol of a "new Africa, one that does not bow its head ... and that's what French leaders cannot tolerate".
'Drop in violence'
The UN on Thursday said that the number of killings in Cote d'Ivoire had dropped sharply this week, with six reported dead, compared to 173 the previous week.
Tensions remain high, however, and UN peacekeepers fired warning shots to disperse a hostile crowd blocking their vehicle in Abidjan, a UN spokesman said Thursday.
The UN said the peacekeepers had "received shots" from hidden gunmen during the incident on Wednesday. Ivorian state media, which remains controlled by Gbagbo, alleged that UN peacekeepers' shots wounded civilians.
Hamadoun Toure, spokesman for the UNOCI peacekeeping mission, denied the allegations, saying the patrol had fired in the air, and "did not fire on the crowd".
On Thursday, Ouattara said that West African mediators would have to work quickly to save his country from chaos.
"We must act quickly. We must learn from everything that has happened. It is time to act and get out of this situation," Ouattara told reporters at his headquarters of the Golf Hotel after giving his New Year address to the nation.
Military intervention possible
West African leaders have said that the threat of military force to remove Gbagbo is off the table for the time being, but that he has until a Jan 3 meeting with an ECOWAS delegation to either step down as president, or face the use of force.
Speaking to Al Jazeera, Cameron Duodo, a West African newspaper editor and political analyst, said that ECOWAS leaders will try "as much as possible for a diplomatic solution, but ... their credibility is also at stake, because the reason they went into Liberia and Sierra Leone was to try and establish democracies".
He added that the blocking of funds may leave the Gbagbo government unable to pay civil servants and soldiers, thus leading to an "internal implosion in the Gbagbo camp".
Ghana on Thursday ruled out the possibility of its troops being used in any military intervention. Ghanaian defence minister Lieutenant General Joseph Henry Smith said that the country's military capacity was already "overstretched" due to commitments elsewhere.