Ban Ki-moon says UN will not tolerate any attempt to ‘starve peacekeepers into submission’
David Smith in Johannesburg and Associated Press
The head of the UN warned today that Ivory Coast faces a “real risk” of return to civil war after post-election violence.
Ban Ki-moon, the UN’s secretary general, said it would not tolerate any attempt by president Laurent Gbagbo to starve out its peacekeepers.
Gbagbo’s refusal to surrender power after the disputed presidential election has triggered unrest in Ivory Coast, where north and south fought a civil war in 2002-03. A French government spokesman, François Baroin, today urged French nationals to leave temporarily. At least 15,000 live in Ivory Coast, which maintains close ties to the former colonial power.
The UN and other world leaders recognise Alassane Ouattara, a northern Muslim, as the winner of last month’s election.
Gbagbo, a southern Christian, has forces surrounding the Golf hotel in Abidjan, where his rival has set up headquarters, protected by the UN. The UN has expressed concern that people inside are not getting medication, and that delivery of food and water has also been impeded.
Ban said: “The intention of Mr Gbagbo and the security forces loyal to him is clearly to blockade the United Nations peacekeeping mission and to suffocate the government of President-elect Ouattara. We cannot allow this.”
Ban said forces had blocked UN patrols, denied customs clearance at Abidjan port and prevented delivery of supplies for more than 800 UN troops and police at the Golf hotel.
“I am concerned that this disruption of life-support supplies for the mission and the Golf hotel will put our peacekeepers in a critical situation in the coming few days,” he said.
“I therefore strongly appeal to member states who are in a position to do so to prepare to support the mission to assist with the continued flow of supplies.”
He added: “Any attempt to starve the United Nations mission into submission will not be tolerated.”
Gbagbo ordered UN peacekeepers out of the country at the weekend but the UN instead extended the mission’s mandate into June.
Gbagbo said yesterday that he was president and the international community had “declared war on Ivory Coast”.
“I call on those who are still in the Golf hotel to go home,” he said. “No one will prevent you from leaving.”
He insisted he was keen to avoid bloodshed. “I don’t want another war, I don’t want any more Ivorian blood to be spilled,” he said.
“I am therefore ready to welcome a committee … headed by the African Union, involving Ecowas [a west African regional bloc], the United Nations, United States, the European Union, Russia and China, which will have permission to analyse objectively the facts of the electoral process … to solve this crisis.”
The army announced the lifting of a nightly curfew so families could “enjoy the end of year holidays and the new year”.
Fears have risen that UN personnel and other foreigners could be targeted as tension grows over the 28 November runoff vote. Masked gunmen opened fire on the UN base in Ivory Coast, though no one was harmed. Two military observers were wounded in another attack. The UN also says armed men have been intimidating its staff at their homes.
Toussaint Alain, an adviser for Gbagbo, said he did not believe soldiers or people close to Gbagbo would carry out such acts.
Ban Ki-moon said the UN peacekeeping force had “confirmed that mercenaries, including freelance former combatants from Liberia, have been recruited to target certain groups in the population”.
Ivory Coast’s 2002-2003 civil war saw Liberians fighting on nearly all sides. Liberia itself suffered back-to-back civil wars until 2003, and the two countries share a porous, 370-mile border.
Liberia’s president has urged citizens not to get involved in Ivory Coast’s latest crisis.
Ouattara’s camp claimed yesterday that Gbagbo had unleashed death squads on his opponents and said it had counted almost 200 dead and 1,000 wounded.
The UN says more than 50 people have been killed in recent days and it has received hundreds of reports of people being abducted from their homes at night by armed assailants in military uniforms. The UN high commissioner for human rights, Navi Pillay, has cited growing evidence of “massive violations of human rights”.
Amnesty International said it had received eyewitness reports of people being arrested or abducted by security forces loyal to Gbagbo. It said bodies had been found in morgues and on the streets, and the violence had not been confined to Abidjan.
“It is clear that more and more people are being illegally detained by security forces or armed militiamen and we fear that many of them may have been killed or have disappeared,” said Salvatore Sagues, Amnesty’s west Africa researcher.
Ivory Coast was once an economic hub because of its role as the world’s top cocoa producer. The civil war split the country into a rebel-controlled north and a loyalist south. While the country officially reunited in a 2007 peace deal, Ouattara still draws his support from the northern half of the country while Gbagbo’s power base is in the south.
Gbagbo claimed victory in the presidential election after his allies threw out half a million ballots from Ouattara strongholds in the north, claiming intimidation of pro-Gbagbo voters. The move infuriated residents, who have long felt they are treated as foreigners in their own country by southerners.
Experts say there are few strong options for forcing Gbagbo out of office as there is little support for military intervention. The US imposed sanctions yesterday against Gbagbo, his wife and about 30 allies, and the EU has also approved sanctions.
But so far Gbagbo appears unmoved, at least officially. A personal telephone call and letter from Barack Obama have gone unanswered, while Gbagbo’s interior minister said simply of the EU sanctions: “They make us smile.”