Hotel serves as new Ivory Coast presidency


By RUKMINI CALLIMACHI, Associated Press

 – Young men hold hands
as they stand in front
of a street fire set
by supporters of
opposition candidate …

ABIDJAN, Ivory Coast – United Nations peacekeepers laid sandbags and rolled out miles of razor wire Monday to protect the aging hotel that has become the de facto presidency of the man who most of the world says won Ivory Coast’s presidential election.

A U.N. tank also took position on one side of the lagoon-facing hotel and armored personnel carriers were strategically guarding the parking lot as Alassane Ouattara held his first cabinet meeting inside a hotel room. Across town in the real presidential palace, incumbent Laurent Gbagbo continued to defy calls from the United States, France and the European Union to step down.

Last week, the United Nations certified the election results confirming that Ouattara won, and his victory has been recognized by numerous world powers including the United States and France. But that didn’t stop Gbagbo from going ahead with a shotgun inauguration over the weekend, where he warned foreign powers not to interfere.

Ouattara’s advisers gathered by the hotel’s pool and in the lobby Monday, sitting in lounge chairs between potted palm trees. Joel N’Guessan, his spokesman, said they are asking for the U.N. to use force and physically remove Gbagbo if he continues to cling to the office.

“President Barack Obama called to congratulate Ouattara. President Sarkozy congratulated Ouattara. Germany sent it by fax. So did England,” N’Guessan said. “These are countries that are on the Security Council. If they cannot make this man respect the results of an election certified by the U.N., then we might as well stop talking about democracy in Africa.”

On Monday, the U.N. also weighed evacuating its non-essential personnel as many feared the country might return to civil war.

Gbagbo, who came to power a decade ago and has stayed on as president five years after his legal term expired, has clamped down on TV and radio, yanking foreign channels off the air. State television is broadcasting continuous loops showing his inauguration ceremony, and many people in the capital are not even aware that most of the world as well as the country’s electoral commission believes Ouattara to be the race’s legal winner.

Even as calls poured in from foreign leaders urging him to step down, Gbagbo defiantly returned to work Monday as if attempting to will a return to normalcy. Schools reopened and children in uniforms and pigtails could be seen heading to class, even as columns of black smoke rose from neighborhoods where young men burned tires and demanded Gbagbo step down. The country’s air and land borders reopened too.

At the Golf Hotel, Ouattara received international mediator Thabo Mbeki, the former president of South Africa, who has spent the past two days shuttling between the two sides.

In the lobby under a ceiling carved with geometric African designs, several chairs were occupied by men in gray camouflage, the uniform of the New Forces rebels. The rebels took over the north of the country during the civil war that broke out in 2002 and destroyed the economy of a nation once so prosperous in a region of abject poverty it was dubbed the “Ivorian miracle.” The men say all they need is the word from Ouattara to go back to war.

World powers do not want to see that happen. On Monday, the president of former colonizer France said he had called Gbagbo and tried to persuade him to hand over power to Ouattara.

“I said the following: It’s up to him to choose the role that he wants to play in history,” French President Nicolas Sarkozy said in India’s capital, New Delhi. “He must now leave power to the president who was elected.”

As if preparing for an armed showdown, the U.N. was taking no chances with the nation’s second “presidency.” In the balmy tropical air, Egyptian peacekeepers were unpacking rolls of concertina wire, wearing Teflon-like gloves. Each coil looked like a giant slinky, and they were pulling them across a 1 mile- (2 kilometer)-stretch of land dotted with palm trees on the road facing the hotel.

The razor wire was already three coils deep on the berm in front of the parking lot, as the grand hotel that once played host to aid workers and diplomats began to look like a military fortress.

“It’s like Napoleon who put the crown on his own head,” said 48-year-old Ali Coulibaly, the owner of a shop selling school supplies. “If the international community is not able to fix this problem, we’ll fix it between ourselves. Gbagbo can’t kill all of us.”

Associated Press writer Marco Chown Oved contributed to this report.

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