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U.N. to stay in Ivory Coast despite Gbagbo demand

- Associated Press - Sunday, December 19, 2010

ABIDJAN, Ivory Coast (AP) — The United Nations warned against attacks on its personnel in Ivory Coast and said it would stay after the man who refuses to give up the presidency ordered thousands of peacekeepers to get out and defied a European Union deadline Sunday for stepping down.

The EU was giving Laurent Gbagbo until the end of the weekend to concede defeat or face sanctions that would include an assets freeze and a visa ban on him and his wife. The U.N. Security Council also is expected to meet Monday to discuss Ivory Coast's political crisis.

Still, experts say there are few strong options for forcing Mr. Gbagbo out of office, and it is unlikely the African Union or others would back a military intervention.

"The trouble is, both sides are clearly preparing now for conflict, and a cornered Gbagbo shows little sense of the national tragedy unfolding through his brinkmanship," said Alex Vines, head of the Africa program at Chatham House, an independent research center in London.

Mr. Vines said it was more likely that the African Union would seek a "soft landing" for Mr. Gbagbo, though it remained unclear whether he would consider such an exile offer.

In a statement read on state television Saturday, Mr. Gbagbo's spokeswoman said 9,000 U.N. peacekeepers and another 900 French troops supporting them were to leave the volatile West African country immediately. Mr. Gbagbo accused the U.N. mission of backing his opponent, Alassane Ouattara, and arming rebels who support him.

The United Nations and the international community recognize Mr. Ouattara as the victor of last month's presidential runoff vote. The United Nations was invited by the country itself to supervise the vote and certify the outcome following a peace accord after Ivory Coast's 2002-03 civil war.

About 800 U.N. peacekeepers are protecting the compound from which Mr. Ouattara is trying to govern the country.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said late Saturday that the U.N. mission, known as UNOCI, would stay in Ivory Coast despite Mr. Gbagbo's demand.

"UNOCI will fulfill its mandate and will continue to monitor and document any human rights violations, incitement to hatred and violence, or attacks on U.N. peacekeepers," said a statement released by a spokesperson for Mr. Ban.

While the U.N. peacekeepers plan to continue their work, Mr. Gbagbo's demand raised fears that U.N. personnel and other foreigners could be targeted in violence. Over the weekend, masked gunmen opened fire on the U.N. compound. Two military observers were wounded in a separate incident.

Fighting between security forces and Mr. Ouattara's supporters already has left as many as 30 people dead.

International pressure is mounting on Mr. Gbagbo to give up his claim to power. The U.N. Security Council planned to discuss the situation in Ivory Coast on Monday, as well as the renewal of the UNOCI's mandate, which is due to expire on Dec. 31.

On Saturday, the chairman of the West African regional bloc ECOWAS said the group supported sanctions against Mr. Gbagbo.

"We still will explore any other avenue for changing government or making Gbagbo yield power to Alassane Ouattara", Chairman James Victor Gbeho said without further elaborating during a visit to Burkina Faso.

The European Union said it would impose an assets freeze and a visa ban on Mr. Gbagbo and his wife after the Sunday deadline elapsed. The United States also is prepared to impose targeted sanctions on Mr. Gbagbo, his immediate family and his inner circle.

Sanctions, though, typically have failed to reverse illegal power grabs in Africa in the past.

On Thursday, Mr. Ouattara called on his supporters to seize key institutions, leading to street clashes that left as many as 30 people dead. Police and troops loyal to Mr. Gbagbo prevented Mr. Ouattara's supporters from marching on government buildings Friday.

Ivory Coast was once an economic hub because of its role as the world's top cocoa producer. The civil war split the country in 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 long have felt they are treated as foreigners in their own country by southerners.

National identity remains at the heart of the divide. The question of who would even be allowed to vote in this long-awaited election took years to settle as officials tried to differentiate between Ivorians with roots in neighboring countries and foreigners.

Mr. Ouattara himself was prevented from running in previous elections after accusations that he was not Ivorian and that he was of Burkinabe origin.

Associated Press writer Brahima Ouedraogo in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, contributed to this report.

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