COTE D'IVOIRE: U.S., U.N. Press Gbagbo to Yield

  • by Jim Lobe* (washington)
  • Thursday, March 31, 2011
  • Inter Press Service

Amid the most intense fighting since last November's election, they also called on both sides to avoid civilian casualties, which have mounted steadily over the past several weeks as pro-Gbagbo militias, in particular, have killed dozens of suspected Ouattara supporters at checkpoints.

'The United States calls on all parties to exercise restraint and to make the protection of civilians their highest priority,' said Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Johnnie Carson at a special press briefing Thursday.

'The people of Cote d'Ivoire have already paid a very high price for democracy. We call upon both sides to ensure that civilians do not pay an even higher price in the future,' he said.

That message was echoed by Ban's spokesman, Farhan Haq, who called on the warring parties 'to exercise maximum restraint, refrain from exacting revenge and place the interests of the whole nation above all else.' He also called for Gbagbo 'to immediately cede power' to Ouattara, the internationally recognised winner of the Nov. 27 presidential elections.

Their remarks came as Ouattara's Republican Forces, which have advanced with surprising speed through the western and central parts of the country over the past week and on Wednesday captured the country's administrative capital, Yamoussoukro, reportedly reached Abidjan, Cote d'Ivoire's largest city by far and Gbagbo's last major base of support.

'Abidjan is on the brink of a human rights catastrophe and total chaos,' Salvatore Saguès, Amnesty International's researcher on West Africa, warned Thursday.

Various reports, however, suggested that the Republican Forces may yet prevail relatively quickly.

Noting, among other developments, that the chief of the army staff, who had been loyal to Gbagbo, and his family had sought asylum at the residence of the South African ambassador's residence in Abidjan, Carson there was a 'clear indication that the military forces of Gbagbo have, in fact, started to disintegrate.'

'I think it would be premature and probably a little bit reckless for me to predict when Gbagbo will fall, whether it will be in the next several hours, the next several days, or the next several weeks. But it is absolutely clear that he is in a …significantly weakened position, having lost most of the territory that he holds in the south and with defections among his senior military ranks,' he said.

Indeed, reports from Abidjan indicated that Gbagbo's forces have abandoned a number of strategic positions, including the Hotel du Golf, where Ouattara and his top aides have been holed up since the election. According to international observers, he won by an eight-percent margin.

Despite a gradual escalation of financial and diplomatic sanctions imposed against him and his regime by the U.N. Security Council, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), and the African Union (AU) since the election, however, Gbagbo has until now refused to cede power.

The four-month standoff has resulted in a steady rise in ethnic tensions and violence. The U.N. estimates that some 500 people have been killed.

Human Rights Watch (HRW) reported Thursday that pro-Gbagbo militias and Liberian mercenaries massacred at least 37 West African immigrants in a village near the border with Liberia Mar. 22, possibly in retaliation for the capture of nearby areas by the Republican Forces.

In a release, the group blamed Gbagbo's forces for most of the violence against civilians suspected of supporting Ouattara, although it also said pro-Ouattara forces have also committed 'numerous' summary executions of presumed pro-Gbagbo fighters and supporters, as well.

The violence and instability have also displaced as many as one million people, mostly from Abidjan, according to the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), which noted that more than 100,000 Ivoirians have sought refuge in neighbouring countries, particularly Liberia.

'The reason why we are so concerned about the Ivory Coast today is that if there is, in fact, a full-scale civil war in that country, it will not only lead to large refugee flows out into Liberia and to neighbouring states,' Carson said Thursday. 'It will also probably lead to growing instability in Sierra Leone, Liberia and other countries that have been plagued by instability before.'

In the latest turn of the screw, the U.N. Security Council Wednesday approved a new resolution calling for Gbagbo to leave office and for the 11,000-strong U.N. peacekeeping mission in Cote d'Ivoire (UNOCI) to use all necessary means to protect civilians and seize heavy weapons. HRW and other rights groups have called for UNOCI to be reinforced with additional equipment, helicopters, and troops.

The resolution also mandated additional sanctions against Gbagbo, his wife and three other close associates and called on all parties to cooperate with a U.N. Human Rights Council investigation of abuses. The conclusions of such an investigation could be referred to the prosecutor's office of the International Criminal Court (ICC), which since November has repeatedly indicated interest in pursuing its own investigation, according to HRW.

Carson hinted that Washington would use the threat of an ICC prosecution as leverage to persuade Gbagbo to give up and order his loyalists, particularly his youth militia, the Jeunes Patriotes, to lay down their arms.

'If, in fact, there is major violence in Abidjan, and Gbagbo does not step aside, he and those around him, including his wife, Simone Gbagbo, will have to be held accountable for the actions that they failed to take to stop it,' he said.

Asked whether he will be held accountable for past abuses, Carson responded affirmatively, adding, however, 'But he does have an opportunity, but that opportunity is slipping away.'

Carson also denied that the situation in Cote d'Ivoire was comparable to that in Libya, where the U.S. and its allies have intervened militarily to prevent government forces from killing civilians.

He noted that the international community has intervened in Cote d'Ivoire with UNOCI supplemented by French military units and that, unlike Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi, 'the former government of Laurent Gbagbo does not have helicopter gunships, jet aviation, or tanks in the numbers that we have seen in (Libya), nor have we seen the tremendous loss of life or the exceeding large number of people racing for the borders.'

*Jim Lobe's blog on U.S. foreign policy can be read at http://www.lobelog.com.

© Inter Press Service (2011) — All Rights ReservedOriginal source: Inter Press Service

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