U.N. peacekeepers come under threat in Ivory Coast

U.N. troops walk inside their compound in Abidjan, Ivory Cost, on Friday, Dec. 31, 2010. The United Nations has warned supporters of incumbent leader Laurent Gbagbo that an attack on the hotel where the internationally recognized winner of last month's election is based could reignite civil war. (AP Photo/Sunday Alamba)U.N. troops walk inside their compound in Abidjan, Ivory Cost, on Friday, Dec. 31, 2010. The United Nations has warned supporters of incumbent leader Laurent Gbagbo that an attack on the hotel where the internationally recognized winner of last month’s election is based could reignite civil war. (AP Photo/Sunday Alamba)
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ABIDJAN, Ivory Coast (AP) — Some people yell “U.N. out!” as the Jordanian U.N. peacekeepers pass by in their armored personnel carriers, but these soldiers don’t understand French. One man honks his horn before dragging his thumb across his throat in a gesture that cannot be misunderstood.

The United Nations declared Alassane Ouattara the winner of Ivory Coast’s long-delayed presidential vote, but incumbent leader Laurent Gbagbo has refused to step aside now for more than a month. Mr. Gbagbo accuses the United Nations of failing to remain neutral, and the United Nations has ignored his demand for thousands of peacekeepers leave.

Now, peacekeepers patrolling the streets of Abidjan are coming under growing threat — one was wounded with a machete this week when a crowd in a pro-Gbagbo neighborhood attacked a convoy and set a U.N. vehicle on fire. The next day, a U.N. patrol was fired upon from a nearby building as an angry crowd surrounded them. They were forced to fire into the air to disperse the crowd, a U.N. statement said.

Mr. Gbagbo accused those peacekeepers of firing on the crowd and reiterated his call for the U.N. mission to leave during a Saturday-evening address on state television.

The United Nations denies having fired on the crowd.

“Any attack against peacekeepers constitutes a crime under international law, for which the perpetrators and those who instigate them will be held accountable,” U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has warned, a U.N. spokesman said.

Ivory Coast is at war,” Ouattara Prime Minister Guillaume Soro said Saturday before calling on the international community to intervene with “legitimate force.”

West African leaders from ECOWAS — the Economic Community of West African States — are due to arrive Monday in Abidjan to negotiate Mr. Gbagbo’s departure. They will be joined by African Union emissary Raila Odinga, the Kenyan prime minister who was widely believed to have won the presidential election in his country in 2007 but in the end settled for a power-sharing deal with incumbent President Mwai Kibaki.

ECOWAS threatened to use military force to remove Mr. Gbagbo if he doesn’t leave freely, but it failed to persuade him to go into exile when its first delegation came to Ivory Coast on Monday.

State television has begun broadcasting short films with images of the country’s 2002-03 civil war played over patriotic music. The films inevitably end with images of the new enemy: the United Nations. While state TV has been jammed across the country and can be seen only in Abidjan, the message seems to have reached residents here.

The United Nations was invited to certify the election results in Ivory Coast as part of a peace agreement signed by all parties after the civil war divided the country in two.

The United Nations endorsed the findings of the country’s electoral commission, but the constitutional council subsequently declared Mr. Gbagbo president after throwing out more than half a million votes from Ouattara strongholds. The council cited violence and intimidation toward Gbagbo supporters that invalidated the results. The top U.N. envoy in Ivory Coast has disputed that assessment.

But while Mr. Ouattara has been internationally recognized as the winner of the presidency, Ivory Coast itself remains divided between supporters of each candidate along lines that are religious, ethnic and geographic.

Mr. Ouattara, a Muslim from the north, is supported by the rebels who took up arms in 2002 to fight for equal rights. Mr. Gbagbo, a Christian from the south, is supported by the army and the state bureaucracy in the south.

“We are on the brink of genocide,” said Ivory Coast’s new U.N. ambassador, Youssoufou Bamba, who is aligned with Mr. Ouattara.

Amnesty International and other human rights organizations have reported hundreds of cases of killings, torture and disappearances since the contested election. Witnesses report that masked men arrive in the night and take pre-selected targets away, often never to be seen again.

The United Nations has confirmed that at least 173 people have died in the past two weeks, and the global body suspects that more may have died, though pro-Gbagbo security forces have prevented them from investigating. The sites of two purported mass graves — one in Abidjan and the other near the city of Gagnoa — still have not been inspected by investigators.

The United Nations, citing witness reports, believes up to 80 bodies have been moved to a nondescript building nestled among shacks in a pro-Gbagbo neighborhood on the outskirts of Abidjan. Investigators have tried to go there several times, and even made it as far as the building’s front door before truckloads of men with guns forced them to leave.

A second mass burial site is believed to be located near Gagnoa in the interior of the country, the United Nations said.

Mr. Ban said Saturday that the U.N. mission in Ivory Coast is doing everything it can to gain access to areas where such violations are being reported — both to document any abuses and prevent others from occurring.

Simon Munzu, the head of the U.N. human rights division, urged security forces to allow investigators inside. Mr. Gbagbo’s government repeatedly has denied the existence of mass graves following violence over the disputed presidential runoff that has left at least 173 confirmed dead already.

“We would be the very first to say that these stories are false if they turn out to be false,” Mr. Munzu said. “Our findings on the matter and their announcement to the world would have a greater chance of being believed than these repeated denials.”

Navi Pillay, the U.N. high commissioner for human rights, said denying access “constitutes a clear violation of international human rights and humanitarian law.” Mr. Pillay also warned that those committing human rights violations at the direction of others also could be held accountable.

Back on the streets of Abidjan, the Jordanian peacekeepers peer warily out at the crowds on the side of the road.

A street vendor gives them a thumbs up, but is quickly reprimanded by others around him. A woman standing outside of an evangelical church starts screaming profanities, and people in passing cars yell threats. While no crowd forms this time, the peacekeepers are well aware that they no longer can think of themselves as impartial observers.

Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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