ABIDJAN: West African leaders called Tuesday on Laurent Gbagbo to "yield power with dignity without further delay" weeks after the country’s disputed presidential runoff vote as international pressure mounted on him to step down.
The regional bloc, ECOWAS, said Gbagbo’s demand that thousands of UN peacekeepers leave the volatile country "would further heighten tensions and worsen the plight of the vulnerable." The UN refugee agency said Tuesday some 6,200 people already have fled the country’s post-election violence.
The rebuke from neighboring nations carries added weight because Gbagbo’s representatives have dismissed similar calls from former colonizer France and other Western nations as foreign interference.
The UN certified Alassane Ouattara as the winner of the Nov. 28 vote, and Gbagbo demanded over the weekend that the nearly 9,000 UN peacekeepers leave immediately. The UN has refused to do so, and a Security Council resolution adopted unanimously Monday extended the force’s mandate until June 30, 2011.
The UN resolution also stepped up pressure on Gbagbo to concede defeat, urging all Ivorian parties and stakeholders "to respect the will of the people and the outcome of the election."
The UN says more than 50 people have been killed in recent days in Ivory Coast, and that it has received hundreds of reports of people being abducted from their homes at night by armed assailants in military uniforms. UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay has cited growing evidence of "massive violations of human rights."
Fears also have risen that UN personnel and other foreigners could be targeted in violence as tensions mount over the election. Over the weekend, masked gunmen opened fire on the UN base in Ivory Coast, though no one from the global body was harmed in the attack. Two military observers were wounded in another attack. The UN also says armed men have been intimidating UN staff at their private homes.
Toussaint Alain, an adviser for Gbagbo, said he didn’t believe soldiers or people close to Gbagbo would carry out such acts.
"The UN is trying to manipulate public opinion and is looking for a pretext for a military intervention," he told The Associated Press in Paris. He blamed possible kidnappings on supporters of Gbagbo’s opponent, disguised in military uniforms.
The UN refugee agency has been airlifting additional supplies to Liberia and Guinea from its emergency stockpile in Copenhagen to be ready to help up to 30,000 refugees.
"We’re seeing continued instability and we clearly have to be ready to deal with the consequences of that," agency spokesman Adrian Edwards told the AP in Geneva. "The 30,000 figure is at this stage a planning figure only."
Edwards said Tuesday his agency also has been made aware of 10 cases of women and children beaten in Ivory Coast.
Ivory Coast was once an economic hub because of its role as the world’s top cocoa producer. A 2002-2003 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 where he was born while Gbagbo’s power base is in the south.
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 have long felt they are treated as foreigners in their own country by southerners.
Additional reporting by John Heilprin and Bashir Adigun.