Abidjan: France urged its citizens to leave Ivory Coast on Wednesday after the UN chief warned the former French colony in West Africa faces "a real risk" of return to civil war following the disputed presidential election.
The United Nations and other world leaders recognize Alassane Ouattara as the winner of the Nov 28 runoff vote. Laurent Gbagbo, the incumbent who refuses to concede defeat and leave the presidency, said late Tuesday that "the international community has declared war on Ivory Coast."
Gbagbo said in the televised speech that he doesn`t want "any blood to be spilled," but maintained he was president of the country. Over the weekend, he ordered all UN peacekeepers out of the country immediately in an escalation of tensions.
The UN considers Ouattara president and is staying put, raising fears that UN personnel and other foreigners could be targeted in violence as tensions mount. The US State Department has already ordered most of its personnel to leave because of what officials called a deteriorating security situation and growing anti-Western sentiment.
French government spokesman Francois Baroin told reporters Wednesday that France recommends that its citizens who can leave Ivory Coast do so temporarily, citing "undeniable sources of worry" in the country. About 13,000 French people are currently believed to be in Ivory Coast, which maintains close ties to France and was once the crown jewel of its former West African colonial empire.
Over the weekend, masked gunmen opened fire on the UN base in Ivory Coast, though no one from the global body was harmed in the attack. Two military observers were wounded in another attack. The UN also says armed men have been intimidating UN staff at their private homes.
Toussaint Alain, an adviser for Gbagbo, said he didn`t believe soldiers or people close to Gbagbo would carry out such acts.
The UN says more than 50 people have been killed in recent days in Ivory Coast, and that it has received hundreds of reports of people being abducted from their homes at night by armed assailants in military uniforms. UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay has cited growing evidence of "massive violations of human rights."
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on Tuesday also said that peacekeepers will face a critical situation in the coming days unless Gbagbo removes a blockade around his opponent`s headquarters. Hundreds of UN troops are protecting the hotel where Ouattara is based, but they are encircled by forces loyal to Gbagbo.
Gbagbo said late Tuesday that people could leave the Golf Hotel, but Ouattara`s people say they`re still not being allowed out. The UN has said that people inside are not getting needed medication, and that delivery of food and water to the building also has been hampered.
"Any attempt to starve the United Nations mission into submission will not be tolerated," Ban said Tuesday.
He also expressed concern about fighters from neighboring Liberia entering into the growing political crisis in Ivory Coast. The UN peacekeeping force in Ivory Coast has "confirmed that mercenaries, including freelance former combatants from Liberia, have been recruited to target certain groups in the population, he said.
Ivory Coast`s 2002-2003 civil war saw the involvement of Liberians fighting on nearly all sides of the conflict. Liberia itself suffered brutal back-to-back civil wars that lasted until 2003, and the two countries share a porous, 370-mile-(600-kilometer-) long border.
Liberia`s president has urged citizens not to get involved in Ivory Coast`s latest political crisis.
Ivory Coast was once an economic hub because of its role as the world`s top cocoa producer. The 2002-2003 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.
Experts say there are few strong options for forcing Gbagbo out of office as there is little support for a military intervention. The United States imposed sanctions Tuesday against Gbagbo, his wife and about 30 allies, and the EU also has approved sanctions. Such punitive measures, though, have typically failed to reverse illegal power grabs in Africa in the past.