ABIDJAN/ABUJA (Reuters) - The United Nations prepared for a partial pull-out of staff from Ivory Coast Tuesday as West African leaders sought to defuse a power struggle between rival claimants of a presidential election at emergency talks.
Disagreement over the outcome of last month’s poll in the world’s top cocoa grower, has raised the risk of renewed violence in a country still divided in two by a 2002-3 war.
Incumbent Laurent Gbagbo was sworn in as president last week even though Ivory Coast’s electoral commission had declared Alassane Ouattara the winner of the November 28 election, after the Constitutional Council overturned that decision.
“It is a provisional relocation of non-essential staff ... We have tension now. It is a normal procedure. It is temporary relocation,” UN mission spokesman Hamadoun Toure said of plans to relocate 600 personnel to Gambia and Senegal.
The world body has about 10,000 peacekeepers in the country.
Cocoa futures in London hit new highs on fears of disruptions to world supplies, with the second-month futures contract up over 1.5 percent at 2,081 pounds a tonne.
Ivory Coast’s $2.3 billion (1.4 billion pounds) Eurobond, a bellwether of investor mood, saw its yield rise above 12 percent Tuesday from pre-vote levels below 10 percent.
Nerves are strained after clashes with security forces have left at least 10 dead, but the Ivory Coast’s leafy, tropical main city of Abidjan appeared calm, its streets humming with traffic and impatient hooting as normal.
Tuesday afternoon, its sandy pavements were crowded with hawkers and people taking their lunch break.
“We’ve been in crisis many years, so it’s nothing new,” said lawyer Herman Dirabou, as he queued to pay his phone bill next to a women frying yams on the pavement.
“Maybe with two presidents we’ll get twice as much done,” he joked, before adding: “I hope they can find a way out of this.”
Leaders from countries including Burkina Faso, Ghana, Liberia and Senegal arrived in the Nigerian capital Abuja for a meeting of the 15-nation ECOWAS, a regional body which has declared support for Ouattara.
“This is an opportunity for heads of state to pool their collective wisdom to see how they can advance the process ... There are many options,” said ECOWAS spokesman Sunny Ugoh.
Former South African president Thabo Mbeki ended a mediation mission to Ivory Coast Monday without success. A source from an ECOWAS country said Burkina Faso President Blaise Compaore — involved in past Ivorian mediation — would now have a role.
The body can impose sanctions or even throw Ivory Coast out of the club but officials suggested the meeting was more likely to restart mediation efforts than impose punitive measures.
Ouattara’s camp, operating out of a tent in the lagoon-side Golf Hotel under protection of U.N. troops and surrounded by razor wire, said the time was not right for sanctions.
“We are not there yet. We think there is plenty of scope to resolve this crisis internally,” Patrick Achi, spokesman of a government line-up proposed by Ouattara.
“This situation cannot drag on for weeks. We’ll see some end to it — for me it’s clear the others will see sense.”
The dispute risks pitting the pro-Gbagbo military against pro-Ouattara rebels. Ivory Coast’s neighbors fear unrest could block trade routes and prompt a refugee crisis in a region still recovering from three civil wars in the past two decades.
The United Nations, United States, former colonial power France, the European Union, the African Union and ECOWAS have all rejected Gbagbo’s proclaimed election victory but he has control of the army and state television.
The political deadlock gripped what was once the economic jewel in the crown of francophone West Africa after the Constitutional Council — run by a Gbagbo ally — scrapped hundreds of thousands of votes from Ouattara strongholds, reversing provisional results giving him a victory.
Gbagbo has scorned the international rejection as an affront to Ivorian sovereignty and has threatened to expel the U.N. Ivory Coast envoy for interference in internal affairs.
Additional reporting by Tim Cocks; Writing by Mark John; Editing by Maria Golovnina