UN rejects demand to leave Ivory Coast

Laurent Gbagbo had accused UN, French peacekeepers of backing rebel fighters.

Abidjan: UN chief Ban Ki-moon rejected a demand that UN peacekeepers leave Ivory Coast, heightening the international confrontation with contested leader Laurent Gbagbo.

Gbagbo had earlier ordered UN and French peacekeepers out of the country, accusing them of backing rebel fighters supporting his rival Alassane Ouattara.

The demand for their "immediate" departure reflected the growing anger of Gbagbo`s nationalist supporters, and came as his most notorious lieutenant urged young Ivorians to make ready to fight for their sovereignty.

But Ban condemned attacks on UN troops in the West African nation and warned of "consequences" for those behind such action.

The UN mission, UNOCI, "will fulfil its mandate and will continue to monitor and document any human rights violations, incitement to hatred and violence, or attacks on UN peacekeepers," Ban was quoted as saying in a statement.

The United Nations, United States, European Union and Ivory Coast`s west African neighbours all demanded that Gbagbo cede power to Ouattara after both men claimed to have won last month`s Presidential Election.

But the veteran strongman retains control of the official armed forces and his backers have vowed to fight on, turning their anger on UN peacekeepers, former colonial power France and Ouattara`s own Ivorian supporters.

"The President of the Republic of the Ivory Coast has just asked for the immediate departure from Ivorian territory of UNOCI and the French forces that support it," Education Minister Jacqueline Lohoues-Oble said on Saturday.

As tension mounted between the two camps, Gbagbo`s supporters accused the United Nations` 10,000-strong force and France`s 900 troops in Ivory Coast of supporting pro-Ouattara rebel fighters.

The spokeswoman repeated these claims and accused the UN mission of broadcasting rebel propaganda on its radio station to destabilise the country.

Ban said: "The international community has spoken with one voice regarding Mr Gbagbo`s attempt to hold onto power."

He added that statements of support for Ouattara by the West African regional bloc, ECOWAS, and the African Union "have shown that the African continent is united in its commitment to respect the democratically expressed will of the Ivorian people”.

About 800 UN forces are protecting Ouattara`s government headquarters in an Abidjan hotel, while Gbagbo retains the presidential palace and the loyalty of the Ivory Coast Army.

Ban "is deeply concerned about the attacks on a UN patrol and sentries at UNOCI HQ perpetrated by elements of the Ivorian security forces apparently loyal to Mr Gbagbo, and an attack on UN military observers by Young Patriots on Saturday, 18 December, which left two military observers wounded."

The Young Patriots also back Gbagbo.

Ban warned: "There will be consequences for those who have perpetrated or orchestrated any such actions or do so in the future."

The UN leader reaffirmed a warning made on Friday that "any attack on UN forces will be an attack on the international community and those responsible for these actions will be held accountable”.

"Any continued actions obstructing and constricting UN operations are similarly unacceptable."

Guillaume Soro, Ouattara`s choice for prime minister and the leader of the New Forces former rebel movement, dismissed Gbagbo`s orders as having no authority.

"In any case, this decision can`t be put into effect as Mr Gbagbo is no longer president, so we don`t need to be concerned with it. We find this act of a beaten president entirely ridiculous...," he said.

France has said in recent days that its contingent, known as "Licorne", could be used to ensure the safe departure of the 15,000 French civilians living in Ivory Coast if the situation turns dangerous.

The UNOCI mission deployed in 2004 to help end a civil war between Gbagbo`s southern forces and northern rebels dubbed the New Forces. The rebels now back Ouattara and Gbagbo`s order will increase fears of a new conflict.

Bureau Report

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