Gbagbo defiant as calls to step down mount

Source: Associated Press

ABIDJAN, Ivory Coast – The noose of international pressure tightened further around Laurent Gbagbo as the top U.N. official in Ivory Coast said Gbagbo’s challenger had won the presidential election by an “irrefutable margin” and the Security Council warned it would not shy from imposing sanctions.

Gbagbo has shut himself off from the international community, defying French President Nicolas Sarkozy who called to urge him to step down and refusing to take a telephone call over the weekend from U.S. President Barack Obama.
The 65-year-old former university instructor is being threatened with sanctions and isolation, even as his government flooded the airwaves with images of his rushed inauguration and explanations by constitutional experts laying out why Gbagbo is the lawful president.

The head of the U.N. mission in Ivory Coast, Choi Young-jin, explained Wednesday how he went over the election results again and again before concluding it was “absolutely clear to me that the Ivorian people had made their choice without any doubt.”

He said opposition leader Alassane Ouattara won the election outright, refuting Gbagbo’s argument that violence and voter intimidation were so widespread in areas where Ouattara won a majority as to invalidate the results from those spots.

Choi showed a map with red dots locating incidences of electoral violence. The majority of the dots were in the west of the country, not the north where Ouattara comes from and where more than half a million of his votes were canceled.

“I remain absolutely certain that I have found the truth,” said Choi in a room crowded with diplomats. “The people have chosen Mr. Alassane Ouattara with an irrefutable margin as the winner.”

In New York, the Security Council issued a statement saying it condemned “in the strongest possible terms” any effort to subvert the will of the people. The council warned they were ready to impose targeted sanctions on anyone who threatens the peace or tries to obstruct the work of the U.N. office in Ivory Coast, whose mission includes verifying and certifying the results of the contested poll according to a 2005 peace deal.

Last month’s presidential election was delayed at least six times over the past three years and has been called “the world’s most expensive election.” Hundreds of millions of dollars have been poured into trying to stabilize the West African country, and identify voters amid convoluted rules over citizenship that were at the heart of the country’s civil war.

The election was supposed to be the final step in a drawn-out process to reunite the country following the was. Instead it appears to have plunged a nation into another tailspin. World condemnation of Gbagbo’s actions has been swift, but it remains unclear what foreign powers can do to make him step down if he refuses to do so voluntarily.

Ouattara’s camp has asked for the U.N. to force Gbagbo out through military intervention, but it appears unlikely that the nearly 10,000-strong peacekeeping force will do anything more than protect the internationally recognized president who is holed up in a luxury hotel.

Asked if the U.N. was willing to use force to impose the results of the vote, Choi told reporters they were looking for a solution without violence. Diplomats say the mounting pressure is beginning to yield results and on Wednesday for the first time, Gbagbo’s camp spoke about the possibility of a power-sharing agreement. Although the suggestion was rejected outright by Ouattara’s side, it indicates a softening of Gbagbo’s stance.

Foreign governments are considering sweeping sanctions targeting not just Gbagbo and his inner circle, but also their wives, their children and their extended family. It would mean that Gbagbo’s relatives could no longer travel to France for their summer holiday and ministers in his government may need to pull their children out of U.S. colleges and boarding schools.

While Gbagbo maintains control over the institutions of state including the army, the treasury and state television and radio, Ouattara on Wednesday began trying to exercise the control he wields abroad.

He has sent letters to the European Union, Belgium, France and the United Nations asking that they no longer recognize Ivorian diplomats appointed by Gbagbo, said his spokesman Patrick Achi. Ouattara also asked the regional central bank used by the Ivorian government to store a majority of its deposits to freeze Gbagbo’s access to the state’s accounts.

Ouattara hopes that will prevent Gbagbo from being able to pay state employees, paralyzing his ability to govern.

Foreign leaders have not shied from making clear they do not consider Gbagbo the legal president. On Tuesday, an Ivorian diplomat was allowed to attend the meeting of the Security Council, but not before U.S. Ambassador Susan Rice made clear that his presence did not signal they considered his government legitimate.

Ivory Coast retains a special place in geopolitics because it was once the pre-eminent colony of the French Empire. The civil war that officially ended in 2003 destroyed much of the economy and Abidjan, once a chic destination with designer boutiques and open-air French-style cafes but now a crumbling relic of its former self.

Yet despite years of upheaval including outbursts of violence as late as 2005, Ivory Coast still remains an economic powerhouse. It’s the second-biggest economy in the region after Nigeria, even though Ivory Coast has one-sixth of Nigeria’s population, according to Jean-Louis Billon, president of the Ivorian Chamber of Commerce and Industry.

It remains the world’s largest exporter of cocoa, and boasts the biggest port on this side of Africa through which neighboring countries receive more than 80 percent of their imports, said Billon.

The continuing uncertainty over what will happen next has led the U.N. to evacuate around 400 nonessential employees. At U.N. headquarters here, suitcases were piled up in the lobby Wednesday and staff with children in strollers were waiting for buses to the airport.

While international workers left by the planeload, regular Ivorians have begun fleeing by foot including to neighboring Liberia, itself a nation shattered by over a decade of war.

“Gbagbo has taken a dangerous gamble,” said Africa expert Jennifer Cooke at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. “In the current context, a return to civil war in Cote d’Ivoire is a very real risk, with a strong possibility that conflict will be far more violent and costly (before).”

Associated Press writers Anita Snow and Edith Lederer contributed to this report from New York.


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