ABIDJAN/UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - The U.N. Security Council on Wednesday backed Alassane Ouattara as the winner of Ivory Coast’s disputed November 28 presidential election, strengthening his challenge to incumbent Laurent Gbagbo.
The West African nation’s electoral commission had given victory to Ouattara by nearly 10 points. But the Constitutional Council, headed by a Gbagbo ally, overturned that result charging fraud in some areas, and declared Gbagbo winner.
Gbagbo has refused to hand over power in the world’s top cocoa grower despite calls from the United States, the European Union and the West African ECOWAS bloc, which suspended Ivory Coast.
Adding its substantial voice, the Security Council cited ECOWAS’ recognition of Ouattara as president-elect and said in a statement its members “call on all stakeholders to respect the outcome of the election.”
In remarks apparently aimed at Gbagbo, who was not directly mentioned, the statement condemned “in the strongest possible terms any attempt to subvert the popular will of the people.”
The 15-nation council also repeated a previous threat to impose “targeted measures” — code for sanctions — against anyone attempting to threaten the peace process or obstruct U.N. operations in Ivory Coast.
Agreement on the statement, which was read to reporters by U.S. envoy Brooke Anderson, had been held up since last Friday by Russia, which argued that the United Nations should not be in the position of deciding who had won an election.
Western countries said the U.N. mission chief in Ivory Coast, Y.J. Choi, had rightly proclaimed Ouattara the victor because he was empowered to certify election results under a 2005 peace deal that followed a 2002-03 civil war.
The compromise text adopted implied that ECOWAS, rather than the United Nations, had made the ruling.
In Ivory Coast, Choi said Gbagbo had no grounds to dispute the results of the election.
Gbagbo has sworn himself in for a new term and named a government. Ouattara has taken a presidential oath in a rival ceremony and refused to back down in a power struggle that risks sending the country back into conflict eight years after the civil war split it into north and south.
Choi said the Constitutional Council move to annul Ouattara’s victory was “not based on facts.” He told a news conference, “I am not interfering in Ivorian affairs ... I am only doing my job as requested by the Ivorian authorities.”
“The people have chosen one person ... Mr. Alassane Ouattara with an irrefutable margin,” he said.
Cocoa futures eased after touching four-month highs this week, with the March ICE contract down $42 or 1.36 percent at $3,042 a tonne at 1615 GMT.
Uncertainty over Ivory Coast’s prospects kept the yield on its $2.3 billion Eurobond above 12 percent, partly on fears U.N. condemnation of Gbagbo’s action may scupper talks on $3 billion debt relief.
An assistant of Charles Koffi Diby, the former finance minister who negotiated that debt relief and has won praise for his handling of Ivory Coast’s economy, told Reuters he had joined Ouattara’s rival camp.
Gbagbo’s allies argued intimidation and fraud skewed the vote in the rebel-held north. But Choi said there had been fewer recorded acts of violence in the north than in pro-Gbagbo western districts, and that even if these and other accusations were true, Ouattara still had a clear majority overall.
Gbagbo remains in control of the army and state television and has shown no signs of ceding power. “It’s not for ECOWAS to decide who is winner ... of an election organised by Ivory Coast,” said his Foreign Minister Alcide Djedje, adding that the United Nations had “gone adrift.”
Ouattara said he regretted that Ivory Coast had been suspended by ECOWAS and that this must be lifted soon.
“I therefore call on Mr. Laurent Gbagbo to hand over power. I hope reason will eventually prevail and that Gbagbo will submit to the will of the Ivorian people,” he said.
Clashes with security forces and between rival supporters have left at least 28 dead and 280 wounded since November 26, according to the International Committee of the Red Cross, with some observers fearing the real toll is double that.
Additional reporting and writing by Patrick Worsnip; Editing by Christopher Wilson