|UN secretary general Ban said UN forces in Cote d’Ivoire are authorised to use force to protect Ouattara [Reuters]|
The United Nations has warned that Cote d’Ivoire could plunge back into civil war if supporters of Laurent Gbagbo, the incumbent president, attack the hotel where his opponent Alassane Ouattara is staying.
Ban Ki Moon, the UN secretary general, said on Friday that UN forces at the Golf hotel in Abidjan are authorised to use all means necessary to protect themselves and Ouattara.
Ban was responding to reports that a member of Gbagbo’s government had called for Ouattara to leave the hotel by January 1st.
The UN also said armed men have been preventing its staff in Cote d’Ivoire from getting to a building believed to contain 80 bodies. The building is in an area controlled by people loyal to the incumbent president Laurent Gbagbo.
Human rights groups warn that pro-Gbagbo security forces have been abducting political opponents.
Famous French lawyers Roland Dumas and Jacques Verges visited Gbagbo on Thursday to offer their support and professional council.
Verges is known for defending the likes of Carlos the Jackal and Klaus Barbie. Dumas is a former foreign minister under president Francois Mitterand, and president of the French constitutional court. Both men distanced themselves from the politics of their country.
“France cannot treat Cote d’Ivoire as a colony, it is an independent country we need to respect,” Verges said in front of the Ivorian presidential palace after meeting with Gbagbo.
“In Cote d’Ivoire there are 15,000 French people living an honest life and being treated honestly, and the country has consented with the French society and very favourably deals with it.”
A delegation of three West African leaders will return to Ivory Coast next week to try to persuade Gbagbo, president since 2000, to cede power or risk facing legitimate force.
The dispute over the election results has provoked lethal street clashes and threatens to restart open conflict.
It has also pushed up cocoa futures to four-month highs on fears the turmoil could eventually disrupt exports.
Cote d’Ivoire’s Eurobond hit a record low last week on concern it would not meet a nearly $30m bond payment due on December 31.
Francis Deng and Edward Luck, both UN advisers, did not directly refer to the possibility of genocide or identify any ethnic groups that might be under threat.
But Youssoufou Bamba, appointed as ambassador to the UN by Ouattara, voiced deep concerns.
“We are on the brink of genocide,” he told reporters in New York. “Something should be done.”
Bamba said more than 170 people had been killed in street protests, adding he aimed to meet all 15 members of the UN Security Council.
Potential for violence
One Western diplomat told Reuters news agency it may be an exaggeration to use the word genocide at the moment but said the potential for ethnic violence was “very real”.
The UN General Assembly last week recognised Ouattara as Ivory Coast’s legitimate president by unanimously deciding the list of diplomats he submitted to the world body be recognised as the sole representatives of Ivory Coast.
But the incumbent president shows no signs of giving in after the election results were overturned by the country’s top court, run by a Gbagbo ally, over allegations of fraud.
Gbagbo has accused former colonial power France of orchestrating an international plot alongside the United States to remove him from power.
The French government dismissed the allegations as groundless. The ambassador described Ouattara as the rightful leader.
“He has been elected in a free, fair, transparent, democratic election,” Bamba said. “We expect the United Nations to be credible and the United Nations to prevent violation and to prevent the election to be stolen from the people.”
Threat of force
Some 16,000 Ivoirians have fled the country for Liberia and the UN is preparing for the number nearly to double.
West African regional bloc ECOWAS has threatened to use force to oust Gbagbo if he does not leave quietly.
Rebels still running the north of Cote d’Ivoire after the civil war have said they would join any intervention.
“We will fight alongside the ECOWAS force to remove Laurent Gbagbo from power,” spokesman Affousy Bamba said by telephone. “We are awaiting ECOWAS’ decision.”
Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan, chairman of ECOWAS, said the next move would be decided after next week’s talks and added that he hoped for a peaceful outcome.
A military official told reporters in Abuja that ECOWAS defence chiefs were meeting in Nigeria’s defence headquarters to map out strategies should Gbagbo refuse to cede power.
The United States and European Union have slapped sanctions on Gbagbo and his inner circle, while the World Bank and the West African regional central bank have cut his financing in an attempt to weaken his grip on power.