ABIDJAN/UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - Forces loyal to Laurent Gbagbo began attacking and burning U.N. vehicles in Ivory Coast on Thursday as tensions escalated between Gbagbo and the world body, which recognizes his rival as president.
The world’s top cocoa grower has been locked in a violent power struggle since a November 28 election that both Gbagbo and his rival, Alassane Ouattara, claim to have won. The United Nations says Ouattara won the vote, but Gbagbo, who took power in 2000, has rejected the U.N.-certified tally.
In Geneva, U.N. human rights chief Navi Pillay said armed forces were blocking access to a site near the central town of Daloa where a mass grave had been reported, as they had already been accused of doing at sites in and around Abidjan.
U.N. spokesman Martin Nesirky said in a statement that Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon was “deeply concerned that regular and irregular forces loyal to Mr. Gbagbo have begun to attack and burn United Nations vehicles.”
“Beginning this morning, there have been a total of six incidents involving such attacks in Abidjan where a UNOCI military vehicle was burnt,” he said, referring to the U.N. peacekeeping mission in Ivory Coast.
There was also a stone-throwing attack on an ambulance in which the driver and doctor were injured, U.N. officials said.
U.N. officials told Reuters privately the situation in Abidjan was becoming increasingly tense and confrontational. They say that Gbagbo’s forces have shifted their tactics away from military confrontations and are now encouraging crowds of people to attack UNOCI vehicles instead.
That has made it increasingly difficult for UNOCI, which has some 10,000 troops and police in Ivory Coast, to respond to the attacks, since it does not want to injure civilians.
“Gbagbo’s setting angry mobs loose on UNOCI,” a U.N. diplomat said. “If they fire into a crowd, all hell will break loose.”
U.N. officials said they were concerned that Gbagbo was trying to provoke UNOCI into firing on civilians in order to spark a massive backlash that would force UNOCI to withdraw.
Gbagbo ordered UNOCI out of Ivory Coast last month, but the United Nations has refused to recognise his authority to make such decisions. The U.N. Security Council was expected to approve a 2,000-troop increase for UNOCI on Friday, but diplomats said the vote had been postponed until next week.
The November election was meant to heal a nation divided into a government-held south and a rebel-run north by a 2002-2003 civil war, but has instead only deepened divisions.
Gbagbo controls the security forces and allied militias, which U.N. officials suspect of rights abuses. The stand-off has sent cocoa prices to four-month highs in recent weeks.
In Washington, U.S. State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said the United States was increasingly concerned about “the Gbagbo regime inciting violence against the United Nations” and added, “We strongly condemn interference” with its work.
In a gesture of support for Ouattara, the State Department said it accepted his choice to be the Ivory Coast’s ambassador to the United States, whom he did not identify.
Pillay told Reuters in Geneva about reports of a third mass grave in Ivory Coast that is off-limits to U.N. personnel.
“I am very concerned now that a third mass grave has been discovered,” she said. “Not only my representative there but the U.N. representative has not been allowed access to the mass graves.”
The United Nations suspects many of the dead were killed by pro-Gbagbo security forces or allied militias in night-time raids on neighbourhoods, with hundreds more abducted.
Gbagbo’s camp has repeatedly dismissed reports of mass graves and “death squads” as fabrications by Ouattara allies.
U.N. officials say they are concerned about ethnic clashes in western Ivory Coast that have resulted in dozens of deaths.
U.N. aid chief Valerie Amos warned of a potential humanitarian crisis. She said in a statement the recent violence had caused a 10-fold increase in the number of internal refugees in Ivory Coast, showing “how quickly a political crisis can have grave humanitarian consequences.”
Over 200 people have died in violence since the vote, and fears of more conflict have prompted more than 20,000 people to flee into neighbouring Liberia, according to U.N. figures.
Clashes in Abidjan between security forces loyal to Gbagbo and supporters of Ouattara killed six policemen and some civilians on Wednesday. Five died in another clash on Tuesday.
Gbagbo’s Interior Ministry said some of the police who died in Wednesday’s clashes had been killed when their vehicle was attacked with rocket-propelled grenades. Ouattara’s camp said Gbagbo’s forces had killed at least seven civilians.
Underlining the growing tensions between Gbagbo supporters and UNOCI, pro-Gbagbo students attacked and burnt a U.N. pickup truck in Abidjan on Thursday in one of the incidents Nesirky referred to in his statement.
“It’s an opportunity for us to show that with our bare hands we can also take action,” Max Amani, a student, said. “Each day we hear shooting in Abobo we will burn 10 UNOCI cars,” he said as others jumped up and down on the burnt-out vehicle.
Reuters witnesses saw a dozen armoured vehicles ferrying troops with automatic weapons on patrol in the northern and largely pro-Ouattara neighbourhoods of Abobo and Ayaman.
Soldiers manned makeshift checkpoints to control traffic.
“The people still live in fear in Abobo,” resident Ladji Bakayoko said.
Additional reporting by Tim Cocks and Loucoumane Coulibaly in Abidjan; Editing by Paul Simao and Peter Cooney