|Thousands of Ivorians have fled post-election violence to neighbouring Liberia [AFP]
Laurent Gbagbo, the incumbent president of Cote d'Ivoire, has warned that he will not leave power voluntarily and that international pressure on him to resign is threatening to push the country into civil war.
Gbago, who has grown increasingly isolated since being announced as the winner of a disputed November 28 presidential run-off poll, told the TV channel Euronews that his departure would not provide "a guarantee [of] peace".
"I do not believe at all in a civil war. But obviously, if the pressures continue as they have, they will push towards war, confrontation," Gbagbo said.
In the interview, due to be broadcast in full on Friday, Gbagbo also condemned France for what he called intereference in Cote d'Ivoire's affairs.
"It [France] is interfering in the worst way," he said. "In all the resolutions on the Ivory Coast at the UN, it is France which has written the draft. We have contested them many times.
"The European Union follows France. In the relations between the big powers today, each has its zone of influence.
"And when it concerns French-speaking countries in north Africa, when France talks, all the others follow."
The international community has widely recognised Alassane Ouattara as the winner of the presidential election, and Gbagbo has come under strong pressure from world powers and West African neighbours to step down.
Speaking to reporters at his headquarters at the Golf Hotel in Abidjan, the commercial capital of Cote d'Ivoire, on Thursday, Ouattara stressed the need for urgency in resolving the crisis.
"We must act quickly. We must learn from everything that has happened. It is time to act and get out of this situation," said Ouattara after giving a New Year address to the nation.
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.
The UN repeated on Thursday its allegation that security forces loyal to Gbagbo are blocking access to sites suspected of being mass graves.
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 not being allowed to enter.
Human rights groups have accused Gbagbo's security forces of abducting and torturing political opponents since the disputed election.
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 Abidjanl.
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".
Ban Ki-Moon, the UN secretary-general, warned Gbagbo's supporters on Thursday against marching on Ouattara's headquarters at the Golf Hotel, 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 January 1.
UN soldiers are protecting the hotel and 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".
Two famous French lawyers, one of them best known for defending Klaus Barbie, a Nazi Gestapo officer, 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 represented Barbie, 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.
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 on Thursday.