* Resolution passed unanimously by 15-nation council
* Measure calls on Gbagbo to step down, forbids heavy arms (Adds quotes, background)
By Louis Charbonneau and Patrick Worsnip
UNITED NATIONS, March 30 (Reuters) - The U.N. Security Council slapped travel bans and asset freezes on Ivory Coast’s Laurent Gbagbo and his closest associates on Wednesday in a bid to force the West African nation’s incumbent leader to quit.
All 15 council members voted for a resolution that echoes earlier U.N. calls for Gbagbo to step down and seeks to prevent use of heavy weapons in the main city Abidjan as the world’s leading cocoa producer teeters on the brink of civil war.
The United Nations and African organizations say challenger Alassane Ouattara defeated Gbagbo in much-delayed presidential elections in Ivory Coast in November. But Gbagbo says he won and has refused to quit, keeping control of most of Abidjan.
The resolution, drafted by France and Nigeria, was passed as forces loyal to Ouattara, moving from their northern strongholds, took the official capital Yamoussoukro, neared the major port of San Pedro and headed toward Abidjan.
Ouattara’s prime minister said there was no room for any further negotiations and that Gbagbo had hours to step down.
An annex to the resolution lists the associates subjected to the sanctions as: Foreign Minister Alcide Djedje; Gbagbo’s wife and senior figure in the Ivorian Popular Front, Simone Gbagbo; the front’s chair Pascal Affi N’Guessan; and the secretary general of Gbagbo’s presidency, Desire Tagro.
All except Djedje have already been targeted by European Union sanctions. The resolution said further names could be added.
French U.N. Ambassador Gerard Araud said the situation in Ivory Coast was “worsening by the hour,” adding, “This resolution is maybe the last message we wanted to send to Gbagbo, which is very simple: Gbagbo must go.”
“It’s the only way to avoid a full-fledged civil war and maybe bloody violence in the streets of Abidjan,” Araud told reporters after the council session.
Nigerian Ambassador Joy Ogwu told journalists, “In my view, the die is cast by this resolution.”
The resolution reaffirmed that the 12,000-strong U.N. peacekeeping force in Ivory Coast, known as UNOCI, is responsible for protecting civilians, but was cautious on how aggressive it should be.
It called on UNOCI “to use all necessary means to carry out its mandate to protect civilians under imminent threat of physical violence, within its capabilities and its areas of deployment, including to prevent the use of heavy weapons used against the civilian population.”
But Ogwu noted that the final text had toned down a sentence in an early draft that instructed UNOCI to seize heavy weapons. “That suggests that UNOCI should not go beyond its mandate — to protect civilians and defend itself,” she said.
Diplomats acknowledged that the force, which Gbagbo has sought unsuccessfully to expel from the country, was struggling to carry out its basic peacekeeping mandate and could not be expected to go to war on behalf of Ouattara against Gbagbo.
In the early post-election phase of the crisis, the West African regional group ECOWAS considered military intervention in Ivory Coast with U.N. backing. But Western diplomats said veto-holder Russia had made clear it would not agree to that and the resolution made no mention of it.
U.S. Ambassador Susan Rice said the resolution, which says more clearly than the council has done before that Ouattara is the legitimate president of Ivory Coast, was “by far the council’s strongest statement to date since the crisis began.” (Editing by Mohammad Zargham)