Foreign powers accused of wooing Ivory Coast Army

Laurent Gbagbo has become locked in dangerous face-off with Alassane Ouattara.

Abidjan: Ivory Coast`s political crisis took a disturbing turn after Laurent Gbagbo, clinging to power after disputed polls, accused foreign envoys of seeking to turn the military against him.

Gbagbo has become locked in a dangerous face-off with long-time enemy Alassane Ouattara after both claimed victory in last month`s Presidential Election, each declaring himself president and naming rival governments.

The United Nations and the international community have recognised Ouattara, but crucially, Gbagbo retains control of the Ivorian Army and the country`s main cocoa-exporting harbours.

On Saturday, Gbagbo`s newly named "interior minister" accused unidentified foreign diplomats of trying to suborn senior military officers, and threatened unspecified reprisals against international interference.

"For several days, civil and military members of certain Western chancelleries in Abidjan have discreetly approached senior officers in our national army," Emile Guirieoulou alleged.

He warned that Gbagbo`s government "will no longer tolerate meddling by any diplomat in the internal affairs of the state of Ivory Coast".

Speaking to reporters in Burkina Faso on Sunday, French Cooperation Minister Henri de Raincourt denied that Paris was meddling in the internal affairs of its former colony.

But in Paris`s view, he said, Ivory Coast`s "elected president" was Alassane Ouattara, he told reporters in Bobo Dioulasso, Burkina Faso.

"When the entire international community, when all African countries, the African Union, the Economic Community of West African States, essentially say the same thing (Ouattara won the election), it is naturally totally inaccurate to speak of meddling," he added.

The Ivorian Army`s chief of staff however warned both French and UN forces against getting involved.

"We simply advise our brothers in the impartial (UN and French) forces to never have Ivorian blood on their hands again," said General Philippe Mangou during a tour of barracks in Abidjan, public television showed.

The remark appeared to refer to deadly clashes between French troops and Ivorian demonstrators in 2004 during the crisis following the failed 2002 coup bid against Gbagbo. An Ivorian air strike also killed nine French soldiers.

"They are not here to make war on Ivorians, they are here to help Ivorians go towards peace," he added.

The United Nations has ordered 460 non-essential staff out of the country and France is drawing up plans to evacuate thousands of its nationals from its former colony if need be.

Ouattara declared himself president based on UN-endorsed results from the November 28 election, and is trying to keep his grip on the levers of state, demanding that members of the military and civil service abandon Gbagbo.

Ivorians have watched anxiously to see how Gbagbo will respond. Reports said he was ready to talk with Ouattara`s side, but they have rejected any suggestion of negotiations until their man is recognised as head of state.

Guirieoulou`s declaration reinforced Gbagbo`s defiant front against pressure from world powers -- including the United Nations Security Council -- for him to bring an end his troubled decade in power.

The United States has made repeated threats of sanctions against Gbagbo.

Guirieoulou alleged that, as well contacts with the national military, "approaches have been made to state media, to regulatory bodies and to top directors of these media".

"The aim of these moves is to find military personnel and police" to back Ouattara and "to recruit the state media in an effort to destabilise and break up peace and social cohesion", he claimed.

Gbagbo has control of the national army, some 18,000 troops, and of the mainly Christian south with its key ports, cocoa fields and oil facilities.

Ouattara, a former prime minister from the largely Muslim rebel-held north, has named former rebel Guillaume Soro, 38, to head his rival government.

Behind him, Soro has several thousand northern "New Forces" troops, former rebels, and has warned they could mobilise if Gbagbo does not budge. But he says he is seeking a peaceful solution.

While some Army commanders have pledged allegiance to Gbagbo, analysts and allies of Ouattara say his military support may not be absolute.

Nevertheless, Gbagbo still seems to have undisputed control of two key units -- the well-armed and motivated Presidential Guard and the Cecos anti-robbery squad -- making any attempt to unseat him a risky undertaking.

Ivorian reggae star Tiken Jah Fakoly on Sunday joined calls for Gbagbo to accept defeat at a news conference in the Malian capital Bamako.

Bureau Report

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