ABIDJAN: Ivory Coast’s deadly political stand-off escalated on Wednesday after a defiant Laurent Gbagbo insisted he is the one true president and his besieged rivals refused once again to talk with him.
United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon expressed concern for the fate of the UN peacekeepers protecting Gbagbo’s opponent Alassane Ouattara, who is holed up in a waterfront golf resort on the outskirts of Abidjan.
Both Ouattara and Gbagbo claim to have won Ivory Coast’s Nov. 28 election but, while the former has been recognized by the international community, the stubborn incumbent has refused to stand down.
Instead, he has deployed his loyalist armed forces to put down pro-Ouattara protests, often with deadly force, and to bottle up his adversary in the Golf Hotel, which is protected by 800 UN peacekeeping troops.
"I won the election with 51.45 percent of the vote. I am president of Ivory Coast. I thank the Ivorians who renewed their faith in me," Gbagbo declared late Tuesday, in his first televised address since declaring victory.
The 65-year-old strongman accused the United Nations of "making war" on his people, and insisted that French and UN peacekeepers would have to leave.
He did offer a flimsy olive branch — rapidly rejected by the Ouattara camp — inviting world powers to send envoys to form panel to study the crisis.
"The troubles we see today in Ivory Coast are caused by the refusal of my opponent to submit himself to the laws, rules and procedures that apply in our country," Gbagbo said, blaming Ouattara and the international community.
"They make war on us … because they deny the Ivorian people’s sovereign right to choose its own leaders, respect its institutions and live in a free country," he said, adding that he did not want to see more blood shed.
He invited the African Union, the West African bloc ECOWAS, West African monetary union, United Nations, Arab League, United States, European Union, Russia, China and "Ivorians of goodwill" to join his study group.
Ouattara’s spokeswoman Anne Ouloto dismissed this offer as a "ruse", and it is unlikely to find much support in foreign capitals, which have all but unanimously called on Gbagbo to stand aside and admit defeat.
United Nations human rights and peacekeeping officials have also accused Gbagbo’s security forces of involvement in "massive human rights abuses" and are probing reports that he has hired Liberian mercenaries as death squads.
Gbagbo insisted Ouattara could leave the Hotel Golf, a waterfront resort on the outskirts of Abidjan where he has been besieged since declaring himself the president and where he is protected by a unit of 800 UN peacekeepers.
But this was also a non-starter for Ouattara’s camp. Ouloto said: "I don’t think we’ll be leaving the Golf Hotel, as Laurent Gbagbo has 3,000 militiamen still in the neighborhood. We have problems with safety."
Ban, meanwhile, issued a plea on behalf of the troops in the United Nations 10,000-strong UNOCI peacekeeping mission, in particular those dug in around the Gold Hotel protecting Ouattara’s beleaguered shadow government.
Ban told the UN General Assembly he was worried that a "disruption of life-support supplies for the mission and the Golf Hotel will put our peacekeepers in a critical situation in the coming days."
"I therefore strongly appeal to member states who are in a position to do so to prepare to support the mission," he added, without specifying what support would be needed in the immediate future.