ABIDJAN (Reuters) - Allies of Ivory Coast’s Alassane Ouattara called on Tuesday for mass protest marches this week to seize the state broadcaster and government buildings, raising the stakes in a poll row with incumbent Laurent Gbagbo.
Thousands of people in rebel-controlled territory, reacting to the appeal, marched south to the boundary with the government zone to demand that Ouattara take power, but security forces dispersed them with tear gas.
Gbagbo and Ouattara both claim to have won the November 28 election, which was meant to reunite the world’s top cocoa grower after a 2002-3 civil war but has instead deepened divisions and led to outbreaks of violence.
Unarmed New Forces rebels were among the protesters who marched to Tiebissou late on Tuesday, where they were halted at the last government checkpoint in the north of the country. Ivorian forces loyal to Gbagbo fired tear gas to disperse them.
Gbagbo has refused to step down despite election commission results showing he lost to Ouattara by a near 10-point margin, a tally certified by the local United Nations mission.
He himself came to power in 2000, when thousands of his supporters took to the streets to help oust military coup leader General Robert Guei, who was accused of trying to rig a vote.
“This was a peaceful march to celebrate Ouattara’s victory, but the security forces stopped us from entering the town then fired tear gas at us,” said ironworker Ali Kone, 32.
Ouattara’s win was overturned by the powerful pro-Gbagbo Constitutional Council, which alleged there had been fraud in Ouattara bastions and cancelled nearly half a million votes.
Ouattara has the backing of the United Nations, France, the United States, the European Union, the African Union and the regional bloc ECOWAS, but Gbagbo controls the security forces.
“The RHDP (party) calls on the youth, women, trade unions, civil society, workers, civil servants and the Ivorian population to conduct a pacifist struggle ... to install the legal and legitimate authorities of Ivory Coast,” said Ouattara party spokesman Djedje Mady.
They plan to march on state broadcaster RTI on Thursday and government buildings on Friday to try to imstall their senior officials there, Mady told reporters at Ouattara’s base in the U.N.-guarded waterside Golf Hotel.
It was the first time Ouattara’s camp has called supporters onto the streets since he claimed victory and swore himself in as president. Any demonstrations would probably be suppressed by an increasingly isolated Gbagbo administration.
Tension since the election has propelled cocoa prices to four-month highs, with the March contract up $50 to $2940 by 1705 GMT (5:05 p.m. British time) on Tuesday.
Industry figures obtained by Reuters on Tuesday showed that beans are still getting through to the main ports despite delays in declaring beans for export. Exporters estimated some 487,000 tonnes had arrived from the bush by last Monday compared with 504,000 tonnes by the same time last season.
Gbagbo’s army set up machinegun positions between palm trees and banana plants close to Ouattara’s hotel base on Monday, provoking a tense stand-off with rebels backing Ouattara that was finally defused by U.N. envoy Y.J. Choi.
At least 28 people have been killed in election-related violence, some by death squads targeting Ouattara activists. Security sources and Ouattara allies say the squads include Liberian militiamen hired by Gbagbo’s camp, which has denied using violence for its political ends.
The European Union decided on Monday to impose a visa ban and asset freeze on Gbagbo and his allies, and Washington has threatened similar measures against Gbagbo’s family.
Gbagbo has made a career out of defying international pressure. His ministers and state media have portrayed international backing for Ouattara’s win as a neo-imperialist conspiracy led by former colonial master France.
“France, the United States, the U.N. and European Union must not wave the red flag of sanctions at Ivory Coast President Laurent Gbagbo, who is the victim of an international plot woven by an unlucky candidate backed diplomatically, financially and militarily by his Western sponsors,” Gbagbo’s foreign minister, Alcide Djedje, said in an emailed declaration to Reuters.
Additional reporting by Gerard Bon in Paris and Charles Bamba in Tiebissou; Writing by Tim Cocks, editing by Tim Pearce