January 7, 2011 / 1:39 PM / in 7 years

Ghana neutral on Ivory Coast, opposes force - president

<p>Ivory Coast's presidential claimant Alassane Ouattara (R) addresses a news conference at the Golf hotel, his headquarters in Abidjan, January 6, 2011. REUTERS/ Thierry Gouegnon</p>

ABIDJAN/ACCRA (Reuters) - The president of Ghana said on Friday his country would not take sides in neighbouring Ivory Coast’s power struggle and that force would not resolve it, exposing a rift in the region about how to deal with the crisis.

Presidential claimant Alassane Ouattara’s camp said it was not worried by divisions among West African leaders over the use of force to oust Laurent Gbagbo, because there are other “military options” that could oust him, a spokesman said.

Gbagbo’s camp called Ghana’s decision wise.

World leaders have recognised Ouattara as winner of a November 28 election and the West African regional bloc ECOWAS has threatened to remove Gbagbo by force. Gbagbo has so far dismissed threats, and any military effort would be daunting.

“Ghana is not taking sides, and Ghana will support any government,” President John Atta Mills said in a speech on Friday. “I personally do not think the military option will solve the problem in Ivory Coast.”

Mills said military planners had told him Ghana’s forces were over-stretched and that in taking the decision not to contribute troops to an ECOWAS intervention force, he had considered the safety of Ghanaian expatriates.

“I‘m not surprised by their position,” Ouattara spokesman Patrick Achi said by phone. “There’s a close relationship between them. At first people felt like this would be easy then, as time goes by, some feel like they owe something to the guy.”

Ivory Coast, the world’s biggest cocoa grower, has attracted millions of people from neighbours seeking work and analysts say they would be vulnerable to retaliation by Gbagbo supporters.

“I don’t think president Ouattara is only counting on ECOWAS to move this forward,” Achi said.

He said other options for intervention existed, giving no details. Ex-colonial power France has ruled itself out.

It was hoped the election would reunite the country after a 2002-03 civil war split it in two, with rebels controlling the north. It has instead deepened divisions between the pro-Ouattara north and Gbagbo’s mostly southern supporters.

The United Nations says at least 210 people have been killed in violence since the election, including 14 in inter-ethnic violence in the western town of Duekoue in recent days. A priest said 12,000 had fled and taken refuge in his church.

Some 500 refugees are crossing into Liberia every day with the total now at 22,000, the United Nations said.

Gbagbo’s government spokesman Ahoua Don Mello said Ghana had “taken the path of wisdom, because ECOWAS is not authorised to intervene militarily against another country.”

He also said Gbagbo’s government had not decided whether to pay overdue interest on a $2.3 billion (1.4 billion pounds) Eurobond, but that Europeans who recognise Ouattara should ask him to pay bills.

“ROTTEN FRUIT”

Earlier on Friday, Ouattara promised Gbagbo an amnesty if he steps down quickly, he told the French paper Le Figaro.

Gbagbo retains the support of the army, so regional forces risk heavy fighting if they intervene, though Ouattara has called for a surgical strike rather than all-out war.

“Gbagbo will fall like a rotten fruit from a tree,” he told reporters at his headquarters in the palm-fringed Golf Hotel, guarded by U.N. peacekeepers and blockaded by Ivorian troops.

Gambian President Yahya Jammeh, a Gbagbo ally, has also rejected the idea of an ECOWAS intervention.

Western powers are stepping up their efforts to isolate Gbagbo through sanctions.

The United States, which has imposed travel bans on Gbagbo supporters, on Thursday barred U.S. citizens from financial dealings with Gbagbo, his wife and members of his inner circle.

European Union diplomats say the EU is set to follow suit by freezing assets in the coming weeks.

The U.N. General Assembly has agreed to recognise only Ouattara’s ambassadors.

Gbagbo’s government removed the British and Canadian ambassadors’ accreditation in retaliation for their de-recognising of his ambassadors. Both said they recognised only Ouattara’s government statements as legitimate.

The West African regional central bank has said it no longer recognises Gbagbo’s authority to access accounts.

Additional reporting by Ange Aboa in Abidjan and Stephanie Nehebay in Geneva; writing by David Lewis and Richard Valdmanis; editing by Janet Lawrence

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