ABIDJAN (Reuters) - Tougher action, possibly including force, is the only way to make Ivory Coast incumbent Laurent Gbagbo step down after mediation failed, rival presidential claimant Alassane Ouattara said on Thursday.
But Ouattara stressed in an interview that international economic sanctions should target only Gbagbo and his allies rather than the civilian population of the world’s top cocoa grower, which is gripped by a violent power struggle between them.
Separately, West African military chiefs said they were on standby if called — although neighbouring countries appear a long way from agreement on using force to oust Gbagbo after a November 28 election which U.N.-certified results show he lost.
“Everyone realises that the only solution is to make Mr Laurent Gbagbo leave with other measures, including force,” Ouattara said, a day after the latest African mediation efforts led by Kenyan premier Raila Odinga collapsed.
Ouattara was speaking in the grounds of his base in the Golf Hotel, a sprawling lagoon-side resort whose palm trees, thatched bars and loud 1970s interiors are a relic of a more prosperous past. Now it is surrounded by razor wire and guarded by hundreds of U.N. troops with sandbagged machinegun positions.
He warned firms paying taxes to the Gbagbo administration risked paying them again to his government if he came to power.
But he added: “I know some are only doing it because they are afraid ... we will have to look at all these questions.”
Gbagbo faces an international bid to starve his government of funds and cocoa markets are watching whether an EU move this weekend to freeze funds to Ivorian ports will hit exports of cocoa, now trading at a five-and-a-half-month high.
“All the measures we back should target those responsible for the situation: Mr Laurent Gbagbo, his government, his entourage ... But I want to spare the large majority of the population,” he told Reuters.
“So, yes to economic sanctions. But let’s study over what time period and against whom, so as not to make the situation worse,” he said from the UN-guarded hotel in Abidjan where he has been living under siege from pro-Gbagbo security forces.
Gbagbo needs up to $100 million a month to pay public sector and army wages, but he continues to benefit from cocoa revenues and has access to state accounts at West Africa’s central bank.
His government missed an end-December coupon on its $2.3 billion Eurobond. Creditors say they have seen no evidence it will pay before a grace period ending this month.
Ouattara declined to say whether his parallel government could make the payment if Gbagbo remained in power by the end of January, repeating that he expected Gbagbo to have gone by then.
“We will respect our commitments ... Mr Laurent will no longer be there, I hope, and ... we will be able to renew our ties with the Bretton Woods institutions,” the former IMF official said of the Washington-based Fund and World Bank.
Ouattara, looking tired but in good health after being holed up in the hotel since early December, complained that Gbagbo had managed to tap some 100 billion CFA francs from Ivorian state accounts held with the Senegal-based BCEAO regional bank despite regional recognition that Ouattara won the election.
“There is a certain dysfunction,” he said, adding that he was counting on a meeting of leaders of the West African franc zone in Mali this weekend to cut the flow of funds.
An EU official told Reuters that the central bank governor Philippe-Henri Dacoury Tabley and director General Denis N’Gbe had been added to the sanctions list because of this.
Ouattara’s designated prime minister, Guillaume Soro, was in Togo and Burkina Faso on Thursday as part of a pre-meeting tour to lobby leaders to harden their line against Gbagbo.
U.N. human rights representative Simon Munzu told reporters in Abidjan that 260 people had died in violence linked to the crisis, which has seen clashes between rival camps and allegations of “death squads” killing and kidnapping Ouattara supporters.
In a sign of worsening relations between Gbagbo and the U.N. peacekeeping mission which has refused his order to leave, army spokesman Babri Gohourou told state TV that 2,000 U.N. troops had joined forces with the rebels controlling the north.
“The New Forces (rebels) and their (U.N.) support are gathering in the economic capital (Abidjan) and other towns to attack, sabotage ... fire on innocent civilians,” he said.
Nick Birnback, a spokesman for the U.N. Department of Peacekeeping Operations in New York, dismissed the remarks as “propagandistic”. He added that the U.N. troops would continue to implement their mandate to protect civilians and the legitimately elected government.
It is unclear which African states would offer troops for a strike on Gbagbo, and several worry it could spark civil war.
“We are ready, although we continue to prepare,” Nigerian official Oluseyi Petinrin told reporters after West African chiefs of defence staff held talks in the Malian capital Bamako.
“If anyone thinks we are bluffing, so much the better — it is better to be underestimated,” he added.