* Officials say vessels banned from new deals with ports
* EU sanctions aim to pressure Laurent Gbagbo to step down
* Abidjan port chief says move will hurt only EU firms
(Recasts with port activity, estimates)
By Charlie Dunmore and Ange Aboa
BRUSSELS/ABIDJAN, Jan 17 (Reuters) - EU-registered vessels are barred from new financial dealings with Ivory Coast’s two main cocoa-exporting ports, EU sources said on Monday, as part of sanctions imposed after November’s contested election.
On Saturday, the EU froze the European assets of the two main ports in Ivory Coast — the world’s biggest cocoa exporter — saying they were “helping to fund the illegitimate government of Mr Laurent Gbagbo”.
But the head of Abidjan port dismissed the measures as “idiotic” steps whose only victims would be European firms.
Officials said the sanctions barred EU-registered vessels and companies from entering into any financial transactions with the ports, unless covered by a previously agreed contract.
“So that would essentially result in a prohibition to make business with those entities,” a European Commission official who helped draft the sanctions told Reuters by phone.
The sanctions are designed to increase pressure on incumbent leader Laurent Gbagbo to step down after a Nov. 28 election he is widely believed to have lost.
French government spokesman Gael Veyssiere said his country’s interpretation of the sanctions was that EU companies or operators were barred from financial dealings with the Ivory Coast ports of Abidjan and San Pedro.
“I don’t know if operators are obliged to have a direct dealings with the port itself, or if they deal with sub-contractors or other third parties,” he said.
“But in any case, no EU company can write a cheque to any of the entities on the sanctions list.”
Separately, cocoa arrivals to main ports were estimated to be above last year’s levels despite the crisis, underlining the resilience of the cocoa trade to the instability that has dogged the world’s top grower since a 2002-2003 civil war.
In the market, dealers noted uncertainty about the impact of the sanctions.
“The ports of Abidjan and San Pedro are major exit points for cocoa exports. So (EU sanctions) are going to make everyone feel more uncertain,” VM Group analyst Gary Mead said.
Reuters reporters said activity at the port on Monday resembled that on a normal day, with two large vessels bound for Amsterdam port being loaded up with crates of cocoa beans.
May cocoa on Liffe ended 8 pounds lower at 1,999 pounds a tonne on Monday.
Abidjan port managing director Marcel Gossio said he interpreted the EU sanctions as merely freezes on funds and assets held by it and 10 other entities within Europe, and that the only victims would be European firms whose payments for work carried out at the port would now be jeopardised.
“I think these are idiotic decisions. It means they will freeze the accounts of Abidjan port in their countries. But the accounts are there to pay European contractors. So I won’t pay them and that will be it,” he said.
Gossio reaffirmed the port’s target to move 26 million tonnes of merchandise this year, up from 24-25 million in 2010.
Exporters estimated on Monday that cocoa arrivals to Abidjan and San Pedro port were running more than 2.4 percent ahead of last year despite the effects of a political crisis.
“The figures speak for themselves,” said the director of an export company in Abidjan. “This is the first time we’ve had 60,000 tonnes in a week, and it shows the harvest is good.” (Writing by Charlie Dunmore and Mark John, editing by Jane Baird)