By MARCO CHOWN OVED and EDITH M. LEDERER, Associated Press
ABIDJAN, Ivory Coast – The U.N. Security Council extended its peacekeeping mission in Ivory Coast on Monday, hours after the United Nations’ top envoy in the West African country said armed men had been threatening staff in their homes.
Laurent Gbagbo’s refusal to concede defeat in last month’s election and his demand that peacekeepers leave have raised fears that U.N. personnel and other foreigners could be targeted in violence. Over the weekend, masked gunmen opened fire on the U.N. base there, though no one from the global body was harmed in the attack. Two military observers were wounded in another attack.
“Armed men have been coming to the personal houses of United Nations employees, asking them to leave and searching their houses under the pretext of looking for arms,” U.N. Special Representative Choi Young-jin said at a news conference in Abidjan.
A spokesman for Gbagbo in Paris on Monday said he doubted soldiers or those supporting Gbagbo would be involved in such tactics.
Gbagbo has ordered the U.N. peacekeeping force to leave Ivory Coast, claiming it is biased in favor of opposition leader Alassane Ouattara. The U.N. and the international community recognize Ouattara as the victor of last month’s presidential runoff vote.
The U.N. has refused to leave, and the Security Council resolution adopted unanimously Monday extended the mandate of the 8,650-strong force until June 30, 2011.
“Members of the Security Council warn all stakeholders that they will be held accountable for attacks against civilians and peacekeepers and will be brought to justice in accordance with international law and international humanitarian law,” said a statement read at the end of the meeting by U.S. Ambassador Susan Rice, the current council president.
The council also extended the temporary deployment of up to 500 additional personnel until March 31, and extends by four weeks the temporary redeployment of three infantry companies and an aviation unit from Liberia to Ivory Coast.
The council resolution stepped up pressure on Gbagbo to concede defeat, and urged all Ivorian parties and stakeholders “to respect the will of the people and the outcome of the election” in view of the recognition of Ouattara by the African Union and the West African regional group ECOWAS.
The U.S. State Department on Sunday ordered most of its personnel to leave Ivory Coast because of the deteriorating security situation and growing anti-Western sentiment.
The U.N. says more than 50 people have been killed in recent days, and that it has received hundreds of reports of people being abducted from their homes at night by armed assailants in military uniforms. U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay said there is growing evidence of “massive violations of human rights.”
Toussaint Alain, an adviser for Gbagbo, said he didn’t believe soldiers or people close to Gbagbo would carry out such acts.
“The U.N. is trying to manipulate public opinion and is looking for a pretext for a military intervention,” he told The AP in Paris. He blamed possible kidnappings on supporters of his opponent, disguised in military uniforms.
The U.N. had been invited by the country itself to supervise the vote and certify the outcome following a peace accord after Ivory Coast’s 2002-2003 civil war. But in a statement read on state television Saturday, a Gbagbo spokeswoman said that 9,000 U.N. peacekeepers and another 900 French troops supporting them were to leave immediately.
Gbagbo accuses the U.N. mission of backing Ouattara and arming rebels who support him.
About 800 U.N. peacekeepers are protecting the hotel from which Ouattara is trying to govern the country. They are, in turn, encircled by Gbagbo’s troops. On Monday, the U.N. said the hotel had been completely blockaded and that people inside had not been able to get needed medication.
Meanwhile, the European Union said Monday it would impose an assets freeze and a visa ban on Gbagbo and his wife after a Sunday deadline for him to step down elapsed.
Gbagbo’s adviser said Europe should not interfere.
“Europe must understand that this is not the colonial period,” said Alain, Gbagbo’s adviser for EU relations. “Or if Europe wants to colonize Ivory Coast, if Europe wants to subdue Ivory Coast, then let’s be clear about it and we’ll become European citizens.”
The United States is also preparing to impose additional sanctions on Gbagbo in “the coming days,” said U.S. State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley.
“Meanwhile, we are distressed to learn the extent of the abuses being perpetrated by masked militants in Cote d’Ivoire. We’re told abductions are occurring and discovery of possible mass graves in Abidjan. We deplore the use of violence and call for Ivoirians to remain calm and peaceful,” Crowley said during a briefing in Washington.
Sanctions, though, have typically failed to reverse illegal power grabs in Africa in the past.
Ivory Coast was once an economic hub because of its role as the world’s top cocoa producer. The civil war split the country in a rebel-controlled north and a loyalist south. While the country officially reunited in a 2007 peace deal, Ouattara still draws his support from the northern half of the country where he was born while Gbagbo’s power base is in the south.
Gbagbo claimed victory in the presidential election only after his allies threw out half a million ballots from Ouattara strongholds in the north, a move that infuriated residents there who have long felt they are treated as foreigners in their own country by southerners.
Gbagbo has also hired prominent American lawyer Lanny Davis apparently as part of an effort to help resolve the situation.
At a press conference Monday, Davis said that he was not asked to determine who won but to evaluate fairly “all the facts regarding the Nov. 28 election.”
Lederer reported from the United Nations. Associated Press writers Gabriele Steinhauser in Brussels, Belgium, Matt Lee and William C. Mann in Washington and Angela Doland in Paris contributed to this report.