Ivory Coast`s Gbagbo says open to talks, asks rivals to disarm

Laurent Gbagbo`s government denies carrying out the shelling of civilians.

Last Updated: Mar 19, 2011, 09:26 AM IST

Abidjan: Ivory Coast strongman Laurent Gbagbo said he was open to talks with his rival Alassane Ouattara as violence escalated in a deadly post-election leadership crisis.

The statement comes days after internationally recognised President Ouattara urged his rival to seize a "last chance" to leave power peacefully after he rejected mediation proposals by the African Union (AU) last week.

Gbagbo also asked fighters backing his opponent to disarm, which they immediately rejected.

Violence in the world`s top cocoa producer has surged as fighters loyal to the rivals clash in the financial capital Abidjan daily, raising fears of civil war.

The United Nations spoke of crimes against humanity while France condemned "the deliberate massacre of civilians" after Gbagbo`s forces shelled a market with mortars on Thursday, killing up to 30 people, according to the UN.

A statement read on state television by Gbagbo`s spokesman Ahoua Don Mello said the outgoing president "notes the framework of discussions proposed by the African Union and is awaiting the appointment of the high representative by the institution to consider inter-Ivorian dialogue".

The AU`s Peace and Security Council (PSC) meets on Thursday to begin negotiations for "the implementation of the proposals" by a panel of five African presidents tasked with mediating the crisis.

While the exact proposals were not made public Mello said here last week: "What is on offer is power-sharing and the very principle of it is unacceptable."

The PSC also asked AU Commission chief Jean Ping to name a "high representative" to Ivory Coast to implement the plan to solve the crisis.

The statement by Gbagbo said dialogue was "the only guarantee of a peaceful outcome to the crisis, the only way to preserve the safety of citizens".

Gbagbo "calls on rebels to disarm and stop the violence", read the statement.

The Gbagbo camp refers to fighters backing Ouattara as "rebels".

"We will not lay down arms when it is we who are attacked in our positions," said the military spokesman of the New Forces, Seydou Ouattara.

"Until now, we are only defending ourselves and he (Gbagbo) does not ask his militia to disarm, he asks us. We will not lay down arms."

A civilian spokesman with the former rebel group Felicien Sekango said: "From now on we no longer speak of the New Forces, but the Republican Forces of Ivory Coast."

"How can one ask the republican Army to disarm? It is rather he who must tell his militia to disarm," he added.

Gbagbo`s government on Friday denied carrying out the shelling of civilians, denouncing the accusations by the UN as a "conspiracy".

Residents on Friday reported more gunfire in Abobo, Abidjan`s most populated suburb, where the massacre took place.

"Yesterday (Thursday) at around midnight we heard shooting from heavy weapons. We got under the bed, on the floor, out of fear of being killed," said one resident.

Since Monday, fighters backing Ouattara have tried to move south from Abobo, infiltrating neighbouring suburbs and drawing fierce resistance from pro-Gbagbo troops.

The United States condemned attacks on civilians and demanded "an immediate end to this brutality”.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton issued the statement singling out Gbagbo by name a day after at least 25 civilians were killed in a mortar attack on a market in Abidjan allegedly by his forces.

"The United States condemns Laurent Gbagbo`s continued attacks on unarmed civilians in Cote d`Ivoire and we demand an immediate end to this brutality," she said.

"Gbagbo`s indiscriminate violence against civilians cannot be tolerated. All individuals responsible for ordering or carrying out these heinous acts will have to answer for their actions," she said.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon expressed shock over the killing of civilians in the mortar attack on the Abobo market.

Ban`s spokesman said a UN patrol and human rights investigators confirmed that six mortar shells were fired and at least 25 people killed, and 40 others wounded.

He said Ban "urges the Security Council to take further measures with regard to the Ivorian individuals who are instigating, orchestrating and committing the violence”.

"In the meantime, UNOCI will continue to investigate and record all such violations of human rights and will continue to take the necessary steps to protect the civilian population," he said.

A West African regional court on Friday temporarily restrained the 15-nation ECOWAS from using force in Ivory Coast after a lawsuit filed on behalf of Gbagbo, a ruling said.

The Economic Community of West African States in December threatened to use force to oust Gbagbo.

Nigeria dismissed claims that President Goodluck Jonathan had provided military support to Gbagbo`s rival, calling the accusation "unfounded".

"It has no basis. There is no evidence of that. Nigeria stands by the decision of the electorate at the election that brought Alassane Ouattara to victory," Foreign Ministry spokesman Damian Agwu said.

A growing humanitarian crisis has accompanied the post-election stand-off and the UN estimates over 400,000 people are on the move -- 200,000 displaced from Abidjan alone, and 80,000 having already crossed into Liberia and Guinea.

Once seen as the economic miracle of west Africa and a beacon of stability in a troubled region, Ivory Coast was plunged into turmoil after an attempted coup in 2002 against Gbagbo.

Bureau Report