U.N. to send more peacekeepers to Ivory Coast

Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 20, 2011

UNITED NATIONS - The U.N. Security Council voted unanimously Wednesday to reinforce the U.N. mission in Ivory Coast with 2,000 additional peacekeepers, escalating an international campaign to pressure the country's longtime ruler to step down from power.

The council's action came as another round of African Union mediation failed to dislodge Prime Minister Laurent Gbagbo, who was defeated Nov. 28 in a U.N.-certified runoff election by opposition leader Alassane Ouattara.

U.N. officials warned that the ethnically divided West African country - which emerged only seven years ago from a bloody civil conflict between Gbagbo's army and rebel forces - could return to war.

"We remain gravely concerned about the possibility of genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes and ethnic cleansing in Cote d'Ivoire," the U.N. secretary general's special advisers on the prevention of genocide, Francis Deng and Edward Luck, said in a joint statement. The advisers added that they were worried about a spike in ethnically charged hate speech and about "allegations that the armed forces and militia groups that back opposing camps in the current political crisis are arming ethnic groups allied to each camp."

Gbagbo, who took power in 2000, has refused to accept the U.N. ruling on the November runoff, citing a decision by the country's constitutional court that he prevailed in the vote. He has called on the United Nations to withdraw its peacekeepers from the country, saying it has wrongly taken sides in an internal conflict.

The United Nations has dismissed Gbagbo's demands as illegitimate. It has also said that armed groups loyal to him have killed more than 200 people - mostly Ouattara's civilian backers - attacked U.N. personnel and set fire to several U.N. vehicles.

Gbagbo's defiance is a major test for the international community's credibility in the region and the prospects for democratic change in Africa.

African leaders, the United States, France and the European Union have all recognized Ouattara as Ivory Coast's rightful president. Western financial institutions have cut off funding to the government, while the United States and European governments have imposed sanctions on Gbagbo and his inner circle.

The Economic Community of West African States has threatened to use "legitimate force" to oust Gbagbo, but several of its members have subsequently expressed opposition to that. Gbagbo has shown no sign that he will agree to leave.

Following a meeting Wednesday with Gbagbo, Kenyan Prime Minister Raila Odinga, serving as the African Union mediator, said that "time is running out for an amicably negotiated settlement." and that the longtime Ivorian leader could squander any opportunity of securing an amnesty guarantee in exchange for abandoning power.

"The window of opportunity for any amnesty will continue to close if Mr. Gbagbo's supporters continue to commit crimes against civilians and peacekeepers," Odinga said.

Odinga expressed mounting frustration with the course of the talks, saying Gbagbo had failed to abide by repeated commitments to him and other African leaders to lift a military blockade on the Golf Hotel, where U.N. peacekeepers are providing protection for Ouattara.

"One of the principal goals of my mission was to convince Mr. Gbagbo to accept that he needed to put his presidency on the agenda for discussions," said Odinga. "In addition, it was imperative that a blockade at the Golf Hotel be lifted. Mr. Gbagbo gave me an assurance that this blockade would be lifted yesterday at midday but he broke that promise for the second time in two weeks."

The Security Council vote Wednesday will bring the strength of the U.N. peacekeeping mission in Ivory Coast to more than 11,000 people, including 60 additional police officers "to meet threats posed by unarmed crowds.". The resolution authorizes the transfer of three attack helicopters from a U.N. mission in Liberia, demands freedom of movement for U.N. and French troops, and reiterates the mission's right to "use all necessary means" to carry out its mission and protect civilians.

It also threatens the possible imposition of targeted sanctions against those who interfere with U.N. operations in Ivory Coast and demands an "immediate halt to the use of media, especially [the pro-Gbagbo] Radiodiffusion Television Ivoirienne, to propagate false information and to incite hatred and violence, including against the U.N."

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