Ivory Coast's Gbagbo digs in, tells UN to leave

ABIDJAN – The government of Ivory Coast's incumbent President Laurent Gbagbo on Saturday told the United Nations and French peacekeeping missions to leave, escalating a dispute over last month's elections.

Both the U.N. and former colonial power France have called on Gbagbo to concede defeat in a November 28 poll, meant to heal the wounds of the West African state’s 2002-03 civil war but which has instead reopened them.

"The government demands the departure of the UNOCI and LICORNE forces in Ivory Coast and is opposed to any renewal of their mandate," said spokeswoman Jacqueline Oble, reading a statement over state television.

"UNOCI has interfered seriously in the internal affairs of Ivory Coast," she said.

The country has been in turmoil since Gbagbo claimed victory in the election with backing from the nation’s top legal body, rejecting as fraudulent results showing he lost by nearly 8 percentage points to rival Alassane Ouattara.

The dispute turned bloody last week as pro-Ouattara marchers clashed with security forces, leaving at least 20 people dead on Thursday. Former rebels supporting Ouattara also briefly exchanged fire with government soldiers.

U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, who has recognised Ouattara as the winner of the election, warned last week of the potential for a resumption of civil war and called on all sides to avoid moves that could trigger further violence.

The United States, France and the European Union have heaped diplomatic pressure on Gbagbo in recent days to step down, threatening sanctions if he does not do so within days.

A top U.S. State Department official told Reuters on Friday that Gbagbo had also been offered a ‘soft landing’ in exile in an African country if he steps down. But a Gbagbo spokesman said late on Friday Gbagbo had no intention of leaving.

Gbagbo has been in power in Ivory Coast since 2000 after a disputed election with coup leader Robert Guei, and two years later survived a rebellion that split the country into a rebel-held north and his government-controlled south.

The United Nations mission in Ivory Coast (UNOCI) includes some 10,000 soldiers and police, and is supported by the French LICORNE force. Hundreds of peacekeepers have been deployed to defend Ouattara’s makeshift headquarters in Abidjan’s lagoon-side Golf Hotel.

The leader of Gbagbo’s youth organisation, the Young Patriots, said on Saturday he was preparing the group for a possible march to ‘liberate’ the hotel.

"Effectively, I’m organising a rally this afternoon in Yopougon to ask the patriots to stand ready to march on the Golf Hotel to liberate it from the rebels taking refuge there," Charles Ble Goude, also Gbagbo’s minister of youth and employment, told Reuters by telephone.

The turmoil in the world’s top grower of cocoa raised cocoa futures to four-month highs in recent weeks, though futures prices have since eased with second-month cocoa in New York settling down nearly 2 percent on Friday.