Gbagbo rallies troops with warning to UN, France

13th December 2010, Comments 0 comments

Isolated internationally, Ivory Coast leader Laurent Gbagbo has launched a nationalist counterattack, rallying supporters with a warning to French and UN troops not to "make war" on his people.

The conflict with the international community was to sharpen Monday, as the European Union prepared to slap "restrictive measures" on "those refusing to submit to election results", a source in Brussels said.

Gbagbo and long-time enemy Alassane Ouattara are locked in a dangerous stand-off after both claimed victory in last month's presidential election.

Ouattara has the backing of the international community, including the UN Security Council, but Gbagbo still enjoys the support of the Ivory Coast army and the ports that are key to the country's massive cocoa trade.

The 65-year-old incumbent occupies the presidential palace and his ministers appear to exercise control over their departments, while Ouattara is trying to control the levers of state from a hotel protected by UN peacekeepers.

In a country that has seen several bouts of violence during a decade-long political crisis, the deadlock is a volatile cocktail, and Gbagbo's generals added to the mix Sunday with a stark warning to international troops.

"We simply advise our brothers in the 'impartial forces' to never again get the blood of Ivorians on their hands," army chief of staff General Philippe Mangou told soldiers on a tour of loyalist barracks around Abidjan.

"They are not here to make war on Ivorians. They are here to help Ivorians move towards peace," he added, in remarks carried repeatedly on Ivory Coast's RTI state television, which remains a loyal Gbagbo mouthpiece.

The 'Impartial Forces' are the United Nations' 10,000-strong peacekeeping force and former colonial power France's 900-strong Licorne detachment, which works under the same mandate in support of the UN mission.

Pledging to defend what he sees as Gbagbo's constitutional mandate, Mangou warned international forces to beware a repeat of the bloody clashes of 2004, when French troops clashed with Ivorian forces and protesters.

"In 2004 we went through painful events. Ivorians have not forgotten -- they have forgiven. We decided to turn the page, but we want everyone to read what is on that page before it is closed," he warned.

In 2002 a failed putsch against Gbagbo plunged Ivory Coast into a conflict that split the country between the rebel mainly-Muslim north and Gbagbo's richer Christian south.

Gbagbo has accused France of supporting the rebellion, and in November 2004 tensions between government supporters and French troops helping patrol the shaky ceasefire line boiled over.

An Ivorian airstrike killed nine French soldiers at a base in the rebel-held north, and clashes between French troops and pro-Gbagbo protesters in the commercial capital Abidjan left more than 50 civilians dead.

Thousands of French expatriates, who are still deeply involved in the Ivory Coast economy 50 years after independence, fled reprisal attacks -- although many have returned, and there are still 15,000 in country.

Mangou's stark warning followed a similar threat from Gbagbo's interior minister, Emile Guirieoulou, who claimed on Saturday that foreign diplomats were attempting to persuade Ivorian generals to switch sides.

Ivorian groups staged small but vociferous demonstrations over the weekend in Washington and Paris demanding an end to international interference.

France insists it is not interfering in Ivory Coast's affairs, but has simply recognised 68-year-old Ouattara as the rightfully elected president on the basis of poll results endorsed by the UN mission.

Gbagbo has control of the national army, some 18,000 troops, and of Abidjan and the other main southern port of San Pedro, which handle the bulk of exports from the world's largest cocoa producer.

Observers say the stability of his rule will in large part depend on his ability to continue paying civil servants, and violence could break out at any moment, with Abidjan a divided city.

Nevertheless, Gbagbo's supporters include the best armed and motivated units in Abidjan, and Ouattara's supporters in the "New Forces", the former northern rebel movement do not seem to be for the moment in a position to challenge him.

© 2010 AFP

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