I.Coast facing New Year threat of open conflict
Ivory Coast faced a New Year overshadowed by the threat of open conflict as West African states said they were ready to deploy troops to oust Laurent Gbagbo by force if talks fail to resolve a standoff.
West African regional military chiefs have set in motion plans to oust the strongman if negotiations by regional mediators fail, a Nigerian defence spokesman, Colonel Mohamed Yerimah, told AFP in Lagos.
The chiefs of defence staff from West African regional organisation ECOWAS met this week in the Nigerian capital "to put machinery in motion that if all political persuasions fail... ECOWAS will forcefully take over power from Laurent Gbagbo and hand over to Alassane Ouattara," he said.
British Foreign Secretary William Hague said London would support military intervention in principle but said any such move should first be cleared by the United Nations.
Hague said it was time for Gbagbo "to recognise that he must go."
Ouattara, recognised by the international community as winner of the November 28 presidential election, is being protected by UN peacekeepers who on Friday were staring down a threat to storm a hotel which he has made his temporary headquarters in Abidjan.
UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon warned UN troops would use "all necessary means" to resist any assault on the hotel.
Gbagbo's notorious "Street General", Minister for Youth Charles Ble Goude, on Wednesday urged Ivorian youths to rise up after the New Year to seize control of Ouattara's headquarters in the waterfront Golf Hotel resort.
UN human rights experts meanwhile said they feared gross human rights violations being committed in Ivory Coast could amount to "crimes against humanity".
Evidence from credible sources suggested "enforced or involuntary disappearances, arbitrary detentions and extrajudicial or arbitrary executions and sexual violence had occurred and may still be occurring" in Ivory Coast, they said in a statement.
The UN's chief peacekeeper accused Gbagbo's state media of "inciting hatred" against UN troops and as West African leaders promised to try once more to negotiate a peaceful settlement to the crisis.
Ouattara's once-plush hotel is protected by a small contingent of lightly armed former rebel fighters known as the New Forces and 800 United Nations troops equipped with armoured vehicles and re-supplied by helicopter.
It is surrounded by Gbagbo's well-armed regulars, the Ivory Coast Defence and Security Forces (FDS), but Ouattara's camp is more concerned about Ble Goude's threat to send thousands of unarmed youths to storm the hotel.
ECOWAS has a standby troubleshooting force of 6,500 soldiers which officials said is almost ready to deploy.
"This is the last resort but hopefully Gbagbo will be persuaded to hand over power politically without military cohesion," Yerimah, the Nigerian defence spokesman, told AFP.
Both Gbagbo and Ouattara claim to have won last month's Ivorian election, but only the latter has been recognised as president by the world community, including the ECOWAS regional group and the United Nations.
Hopes for a negotiated settlement have come to rest on the West African leaders represented by ECOWAS, who have voted to authorise military intervention if Gbagbo refuses to step aside for Ouattara.
A delegation of three West African presidents came to Abidjan on Tuesday to deliver their ultimatum, but left without a clear result, and have since said they are still pressing for a peaceful solution.
Should talks fail, any military intervention would be unlikely before mid-January at the earliest. Yerimah said a follow-up meeting to fine-tune the logistics of what would be a multi-national operation has been scheduled for Mali on January 17 and 18.
France meanwhile advised its citizens in Ivory Coast, "in particular families with children," to temporarily leave the West African state because of the "acute political crisis" there.
© 2010 AFP