Ivory Coast election dispute escalates

The United Nations says it has received hundreds of reports of people being abducted from their homes by armed assailants in military uniform in Ivory Coast and that there is growing evidence of "massive violations of human rights" since the country's disputed election.
African Union Commission Chairperson Jean Ping, left, shakes hands with Ivory Coast President Laurent Gbagbo at his private residence in Abidjan on Friday. ((Reuters))
The United Nations said Sunday it has received hundreds of reports of people being abducted from their homes by armed assailants in military uniform in Ivory Coast and that there is growing evidence of "massive violations of human rights" since the country's disputed election.

The statement from the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights came a day after the agency said it would remain in Ivory Coast despite demands from the man refusing to give up the presidency that thousands of peacekeepers get out of the West African country.

Navi Pillay, the top UN human rights official, said Sunday that more than 50 people have been killed over the past three days in Ivory Coast. Previous estimates were that up to 30 people had died in the violence.

"The deteriorating security conditions in the country and the interference with freedom of movement of UN personnel have made it difficult to investigate the large number of human rights violations reported," Pillay said in a statement.

It also said that the armed assailants behind the home abductions had been "accompanied by elements of the Defence and Security Forces or militia groups."

International pressure is mounting for Laurent Gbagbo to concede defeat to opposition leader Alassane Ouattara, whose victory has been recognized by the UN, the United States, former colonizer France and the African Union.

U.S. personnel must leave

Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister Lawrence Cannon said in a release Sunday the federal government "does not recognize Mr. Gbagbo's illegitimately-appointed government," and that if he doesn't leave office Canada will pursue economic sanctions and travel restrictions against him and his family.

In Washington, the U.S. State Department ordered most of its personnel Sunday to leave Ivory Coast because of the deteriorating security situation and growing anti-Western sentiment.

The order issued Sunday exempts only the State Department's emergency personnel. U.S. officials also warned all American citizens to avoid travel to the West African nation until further notice.

Alassane Ouattara, left, greets UN mission chief to Ivory Coast Y.J. Choi in Abidjan on Dec. 9. The UN Security Council has backed Ouattara as the winner of Ivory Coast's disputed Nov. 28 presidential election. ((Thierry Gouegnon/Reuters))
The EU was giving Gbagbo until Sunday to concede defeat or face sanctions that would include an assets freeze and a visa ban on him and his wife. The UN Security Council is also expected to meet Monday to discuss Ivory Coast's political crisis.

Still, experts say there are few strong options for forcing Gbagbo out of office, and it is unlikely the African Union or others would back a military intervention.

"The trouble is both sides are clearly preparing now for conflict, and a cornered Gbagbo shows little sense of the national tragedy unfolding through his brinkmanship," said Alex Vines, head of the Africa program at Chatham House, an independent research centre in London.

Vines said it was more likely that the African Union would seek a "soft landing" for Gbagbo, though it remained unclear whether he would consider such an exile offer.

In a statement read on state television Saturday, Gbagbo's spokeswoman said that 9,000 UN peacekeepers and another 900 French troops supporting them were to leave Ivory Coast immediately. Gbagbo accused the UN mission of backing Ouattara and arming rebels who support him.

The UN and the international community recognize Ouattara as the victor of last month's presidential runoff vote. The UN 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.

About 800 UN peacekeepers are protecting the compound from which Ouattara is trying to govern the country. They are in turn encircled by Gbagbo's troops.

The UN secretary-general said late Saturday that the UN mission known as UNOCI would stay in Ivory Coast despite Gbagbo's demand.

Ivory Coast was once an economic hub because of its role as the world's top cocoa producer. The civil war split the country into 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.

National identity remains at the heart of the divide. The question of who would even be allowed to vote in this long-awaited election took years to settle as officials tried to differentiate between Ivorians with roots in neighbouring countries and foreigners.

Ouattara had himself been prevented from running in previous elections after accusations that he was not Ivorian and that he was of Burkinabè origin (from the neighbouring country of Burkina Faso).