Ivory Coast: Gbagbo defiant as French urged to leave

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Ivory Coast's deadly political stand-off escalated Wednesday as a defiant Laurent Gbagbo insisted he is the one true president and France advised its large expatriate community to leave.

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.

The streets of Abidjan were lively, with traffic jams signalling the return to work for many after the violence of the past month of crisis, but tensions remain high and former colonial power France urged its nationals to leave.

Many of the estimated 15,000 French expatriates have already left for Christmas or to escape the ugly atmosphere of recent weeks. Those who have not should depart "provisionally", French spokesman Francois Baroin said.

Germany, which has many fewer citizens in Ivory Coast, followed suit.

Several other countries, including Britain and the United States, had already advised their citizens to leave, and Nigeria said it was bringing out diplomats' families after a security incident at its embassy.

Both Ouattara and Gbagbo claim to have won Ivory Coast's November 28 election, but while the former has been recognised 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 a 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.

The private daily L'Intelligent summed up the offer as: "Gbagbo tries to regain the initiative, without ceding any ground." The opposition Le Patriote accused him of playing for time ahead of a summit of West African leaders.

Gbagbo insisted Ouattara could leave the Golf Hotel, a waterfront resort on the outskirts of Abidjan where he and his shadow government have 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 neighbourhood. We have problems with safety."

Ban, meanwhile, issued a plea on behalf of the troops in the United Nations 9,000-strong UNOCI peacekeeping mission, in particular those dug in around the Golf Hotel.

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.

© 2010 AFP

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