Abidjan: Allies of the man who the international community says won Ivory Coast's disputed Presidential Election called on Sunday for a general strike that would last until the incumbent hanging on to power concedes defeat and leaves office.
It was the latest form of pressure to try to force Laurent Gbagbo from the presidency nearly a month after the United Nations said his political rival, Alassane Ouattara, won the runoff vote. Gbagbo has refused to leave despite international calls for his ouster, and West African leaders say they now will remove him by force if he fails to go.
In an interview on Sunday, Gbagbo said he was not concerned about world opinion, insisting he was duly elected. He said of his detractors: "Maybe they do not want me, I admit it, but I am not looking to be loved by them. I respect and abide by the Ivorians' vote."
Djedje Mady, the head of Ouattara's electoral coalition, said it called on "all Ivorians and those who live in Ivory Coast and believe in peace and justice to cease all their activities on Monday, December 27, 2010, until Laurent Gbagbo leaves power”.
The UN has said at least 173 people have been killed in violence over the vote, heightening fears that the country once divided in two could return to civil war. The toll is believed to be much higher, though, as the UN mission has been blocked from investigating other reports, including an allegation of a mass grave.
On Sunday, the interior minister appointed by Gbagbo accused the UN of only telling half the story. Emile Guirieoulou said that at least 36 of the victims were police or other security forces who "were targeted by gunfire coming from the protesters”.
Guirieoulou also alleged that the thousands of refugees arriving in Liberia had fled violence perpetrated by rebels who support Ouattara. The UN refugee agency says at least 14,000 people have fled the violence and political chaos in Ivory Coast, some walking for up to four days with little food to reach neighbouring Liberia. At least one child drowned while trying to cross a river.
Gbagbo has been in power since 2000 and had already overstayed his mandate by five years when the long-delayed Presidential Election was finally held in October. The vote was intended to help reunify the country, which was divided by the 2002-2003 civil war into a rebel-controlled north and a loyalist south.
Instead, the election has renewed divisions that threaten to plunge the country back into civil war. While Ivory Coast was officially reunited in a 2007 peace deal, Ouattara still draws his support from the northern half of the country, where residents feel they are often treated as foreigners within their own country by southerners.
The UN certified Ouattara as the winner of the November 28 runoff vote, but a Gbagbo ally overturned those results by throwing out half a million ballots from Ouattara strongholds in the north. The move angered people who had waited for years as officials settled who would be allowed to vote in the long-delayed election, differentiating between Ivorians with roots in neighbouring countries and foreigners.
For nearly a month, Gbagbo has now defied calls from the international community to concede defeat. West African leaders from the regional bloc ECOWAS late Friday threatened a military intervention if Gbagbo does not step down. On Sunday, Sierra Leone's Information Ministry said that three leaders from the region would pay him a visit.
"In the spirit of brotherliness in Africa, three presidents have been nominated by their colleagues to confront Mr Gbagbo in Abidjan to encourage him to leave office without delay," the ministry said. "The three presidents can fly back with Mr Gbagbo, as all ECOWAS countries are prepared to grant him asylum."
First Published: Monday, December 27, 2010, 09:04