March 21, 2011 / 2:37 PM / in 7 years

INTERVIEW-Liberia's Sirleaf warns on Ivory Coast

* Johnson-Sirleaf says Ivory Coast “already at war”

* Response to U.N. aid appeal “slow and inadequate”

* Defends decision to stand for new term at 72 (Adds new quotes on Ivory Coast, her career)

By Simon Akam

MONROVIA, March 21 (Reuters) - Ivory Coast’s descent into violence risks wiping out hard-won security gains in West Africa unless a post-election power struggle is resolved, Liberian President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf told Reuters on Monday.

“We’re already at war. We hope there will not be an escalation of war,” she said in an interview in her office in Liberia’s capital Monrovia.

“It’s a serious threat to the stability of Liberia, and I might say to the stability of all neighbouring countries.”

Liberia is recovering from years of civil war between 1998 and 2003 and is struggling to cope with some 90,000 Ivorian refugees who have poured across the border since a dispute over a November presidential vote turned violent.

The U.N. refugee agency (UNHCR) appealed for $46 million in aid in mid-January but with the focus of world attention on the conflict in Libya and the earthquake and tsunami disaster in Japan, said earlier this month barely $5 million had come.

“The U.N. has put out an appeal but the response has been very slow and inadequate,” Johnson-Sirleaf said.

“There was a lot of attention to the Ivory Coast before the situation in Libya and the Middle East,” she said. “The crisis in Ivory Coast slipped off the radar.”

While Liberians initially strove to accommodate refugees, there are now too many of them, Johnson-Sirleaf said, warning local infrastructure and food supplies were strained and fearing that arms could cross the border into her country.

“It could easily ignite tensions between the two that have been in conflict before,” she said of refugee and host communities.

“BETTER THAN THEM”

Around 400 Ivorians have died and hundreds of thousands have fled their homes in a dispute over a Nov. 28 presidential vote which U.N.-certified results showed was won by Alassane Ouattara, a rival to incumbent leader Laurent Gbagbo.

Gbagbo, who has the backing of the army, says the results were rigged and has refused to quit, pointing to a decision to reverse Ouattara’s win by the country’s Constitutional Council, headed by a long-standing Gbagbo ally.

Dressed in her trademark headwrap, Johnson-Sirleaf said a presidential election scheduled in Liberia for later this year added another ingredient to a volatile political cocktail.

“We have our own political tensions escalated with the upcoming election, ” she said. “This could be used as an excuse by those who would like to see our country destabilised.”

Citing the need for continuity, she defended her decision to run for another six-year term at the age of 72 against critics who suggest she is too old to stand.

“The task of rebuilding proved to be a bit more difficult that we had anticipated,” she said. “(But) I work harder than they do; I do more than they do,” she said. “I‘m equal to or better than any of them.” (Reporting by Simon Akam; Editing by Mark John and Janet Lawrence)

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