ABIDJAN (Reuters) - Bloody post-election deadlock in Ivory Coast washed into the halls of West Africa’s central bank on Friday, where rival presidents see control of state funds as a key to victory in a battle that has cost hundreds of lives.
Alassane Ouattara, the challenger regarded by international powers as the winner of the November 28 presidential election, complained that the incumbent, Laurent Gbagbo, was still receiving central bank funds on a daily basis, even as he refuses to step down with backing from the military.
Ouattara, who is living besieged in the main port of Abidjan under the protection of U.N. peacekeepers, has pinned hopes on targeted sanctions and financial controls to weaken Gbagbo’s hold on military loyalties and freeze him out.
West Africa’s monetary union noted recognition of Ouattara by world leaders on December 23 and said it would only deal with legitimate governments, which many took to mean it would freeze Gbagbo out of the state accounts there.
But on a day when the United Nations raised its estimate of the death toll since the election seven weeks ago to at least 247, up 37 in the past week, Ouattara’s planning minister visited the regional bank, the BCEAO, in Dakar and complained of “daily withdrawals from Ivory Coast’s account.
Ouattara also criticised the central bank’s lack of action.
“The decision made by the regional central bank should be implemented fully,” he told journalists in Washington on a conference call. “As of today, this is not the case.”
“We have written to the governor and we have told them that if they continue we will ask the European Union, the U.S. and U.N. to put them on the list of people to be sanctioned.”
Ouattara aide Toikeusse Mabri told Reuters in Dakar, the central bank’s headquarters, that 78 billion CFA francs ($160 million) had been withdrawn between December 24 and January 12, even while the bank notes world recognition of Ouattara as president.
The European Union on Friday formally approved toughened visa bans and asset freezes on Gbagbo and leading supporters, to take effect from Saturday.
Mabri suggested said that Gbagbo’s security forces were putting pressure on employees at the BCEAO branch in Abidjan to pay out. The bank, which serves eight mainly former French colonies, is headed by an Ivorian seen as a Gbagbo ally.
The bank refused to comment on the accusations.
While franc zone leaders on December 23 noted international recognition of Ouattara as president, the country’s commercial banks were still able as of early January to participate in the weekly liquidity auctions and other operations conducted by the central bank, according to its website.
Confusion has reigned about the state of the finances of the world’s top cocoa grower since the election, but Gbagbo’s administration has sought to reassure international investors it intends to honour overdue interest on a $2.3 billion Eurobond.
A Gbagbo government spokesman said he was doing all it can to find funds to meet its debt obligations, but creditors should recognise him as president if they want payment.
The United Nations has complained its peacekeepers are being targeted increasingly by Gbagbo supporters. A number of U.N. vehicles were torched on Thursday. A U.N. ambulance was attacked and the doctor and patient inside injured.
“I am deeply concerned by the deteriorating political and security situation — especially the growing number of violent incidents targeting civilians and the United Nations mission,” U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon told reporters in New York.
“Apart from the blockade of the Golf Hotel and the attempt to constrict supplies to the U.N. mission — in itself unacceptable — we have concrete intelligence that the former president and those around him are inciting their followers to violence, both against the U.N. and their own countrymen.”
He noted that such actions were crimes under international law and that the International Criminal Court would investigate.
The world body suspects many of those Ivorians who have died were killed by security forces or their allied militias in night raids on pro-Ouattara areas. Officials say hundreds of others may have been abducted and taken to secret detention centres.
U.N. human rights spokesman Rupert Colville told reporters in Geneva in Friday that at least 49 people were unaccounted for, including 20 reported as disappearing in the past week.
Gbagbo’s government spokesman Ahoua Don Mello denied charges his security forces were involved in violence. “This isn’t possible. We are against all forms of violence,” he said.
Additional reporting by Diadie Ba in Dakar, Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva, David Brunnstrom in Brussels, David Alexander in Washington and Louis Charbonneau at the United Nations; editing by David Lewis and Alastair Macdonald