ABIDJAN/UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - The United Nations wants between 1,000 and 2,000 additional peacekeepers for Ivory Coast as the world body presses incumbent leader Laurent Gbagbo to step down after a disputed election.
The West African country has been in turmoil since the November 28 poll that Western powers and African states say was won by Gbagbo’s rival Alassane Ouattara, leading to a standoff that has killed more than 170 people and raised fears of civil war.
U.N. peacekeeping chief Alain Le Roy told Reuters the U.N. would formally request between 1,000 and 2,000 additional troops for Ivory Coast from the 15-nation Security Council, and said he hoped they could be deployed within weeks.
Gbagbo’s government called again for the U.N. peacekeeping mission to leave the country, after the U.N. said it recognised Ouattara as the winner of the election. The U.N. has had 10,000 troops in the country since a 2002-03 civil war split it in two.
The West African regional bloc ECOWAS has threatened Gbagbo with force if he does not cede power to Ouattara, but it has said intervention would be a last resort and opened the door to negotiations after Gbagbo agreed to further talks.
A solution to the crisis in the world’s top cocoa producer now appears distant. Ouattara has dismissed the offer of talks, saying the use of force is the only solution.
He told France 24 television that Gbagbo “must leave power to allow Ivory Coast to return to normal” and said a military intervention need not trigger another civil war.
Analysts doubt that ECOWAS has the means or the will to use force, which could lead to destructive urban warfare and heavy civilian casualties.
“Military intervention does not mean that the Ivory Coast will ignite,” Ouattara said from the Golf Hotel, where he is under U.N. protection. “All that needs to be done, as has been done in other African countries, is to come and get Gbagbo and remove him from the presidential palace.”
Gbagbo has shown no sign of caving to international pressure, sanctions and the threat of force, and has accused world leaders of meddling in Ivory Coast’s internal affairs.
The head of his youth group, Ble Goude, late on Wednesday called on his supporters to resist any foreign occupation.
“This gentleman (Ouattara) forgets that no army, however powerful, can come here and remove Gbagbo in order to install him,” he told a crowd of 5,000. “Are you going to accept that?”
“No, no, no!” the crowd shouted back.
The U.N. says Gbagbo’s state media has used anti-U.N. propaganda to stir up popular hostility to the peacekeepers.
Ivory Coast security forces continued to bar roads to the lagoon-side Golf Hotel, despite a promise by Gbagbo to ease the blockade. “Mister, don’t try and come through here. Turn your car around and don’t argue,” a soldier wielding an AK-47 said.
Gbagbo’s foreign minister, Alcide Djedje, told a news conference on Wednesday the blockade would not be lifted while the 300 armed rebels loyal to Ouattara remained inside.
“That constitutes a threat for the president. It’s a question of the soldiers of the New Forces (rebels) leaving the hotel as a condition of lifting the blockade,” he said.
Only U.N. helicopters and supply trucks have access.
Gbagbo is backed by his security forces, some Ivorian youth and militia groups, and the Constitutional Council, which overturned Ouattara’s 8-point election win, alleging fraud.
He has refused exile in South Africa, Nigeria and the United States. “President Gbagbo doesn’t need to go to Washington. He’s fine where he is and he intends to stay there,” Djedje said.
U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Johnnie Carson said Gbagbo should hand power to Ouattara. “There is no question that the election in the Ivory Coast was stolen by President Gbagbo and those around him,” he said.
Diplomats and security sources say many of the dead are victims of death squads operating at night in pro-Ouattara areas, and the U.N. says hundreds more have been kidnapped.
Gbagbo’s camp says these are lies meant to discredit him.
Despite the turmoil, cocoa is arriving at Ivory Coast’s ports in similar quantities to last season. [nLDE704137].
The country’s Eurobond is trading at a yield of 15 percent, after it failed to meet an interest payment on Friday, but it will only be in default after a month’s grace period.
Additional reporting by Ange Aboa; writing by Richard Valdmanis and Tim Cocks; editing by Tim Pearce