ABIDJAN/BRUSSELS (Reuters) - The European Union on Saturday increased the pressure on Ivory Coast leader Laurent Gbagbo to step down, freezing assets of the West African country’s cocoa-exporting ports, its state oil firm and three banks.
The latest move in international efforts to persuade Gbagbo to quit after an election he is widely held to have lost, the EU announced a sanctions list that included state refiner SIR, the country’s rubber sector body, energy utility SOGEPE and national broadcaster RTI.
Gbagbo’s camp brushed off the tighter sanctions and said he still had access to accounts at West Africa’s central bank, even though regional leaders recognise his rival Alassane Ouattara as the legitimate leader of the world’s top cocoa grower.
“Westerners often make this mistake. The world does not stop at Europe, it does not stop at America,” Gbagbo’s government spokesman Ahoua Don Mello said. “Africa has evolved. We can dispense with France, we can go elsewhere,” he added, referring to Ivory Coast’s former colonial ruler.
The United Nations human rights office said at least 247 people have been killed in violence in Ivory Coast since the disputed presidential election on November 28, which risks sending the country back into civil war.
The EU’s Official Journal said the firms and utilities were “helping to fund the illegitimate government” of Gbagbo.
The EU first imposed sanctions on Gbagbo and his backers in December after the election that world powers and African neighbours say Ouattara won. Gbagbo cites a Constitutional Council ruling that the results were rigged against him.
Broadcaster RTI was guilty of “public incitement to hatred and violence through participation in disinformation campaigns in connection with the 2010 presidential election,” the EU Journal said.
“All funds and economic resources belonging to, owned, held or controlled by the natural or legal persons, entities and bodies ... shall be frozen,” the journal said. The measures also ban funds being made available to listed people and bodies.
They maintain an asset freeze and visa ban on Gbagbo and 84 of his supporters, including Gbagbo’s wife, ministers, army chiefs, security staff and newspaper editors.
An EU spokesman said it was too early to gauge how Ivory Coast’s economic activity would be affected by the sanctions.
The leader of Gbagbo’s youth wing, who have caused havoc in Abidjan in the past, repeated a threat to send out his youth to march on the U.N. guarded Golf Hotel, where Ouattara is trapped. Previous such threats have not been carried out.
“The youth of Ivory Coast are ready. Before the 25th (of January) we will give the order. What is going on there (in the Golf Hotel), I won’t tolerate that,” he told around 4,000 cheering youths at a rally near the palm-fringed hotel.
Analysts say that the financial squeeze might be the best way to oust Gbagbo given the limited prospect of military intervention, but he could hold out for several months before he feels the pinch.
Ouattara complained on Friday that Gbagbo was still receiving substantial funds daily from the Senegal-based BCEAO regional central bank. Mello confirmed this was true and said no one could stop them.
West Africa’s monetary union noted recognition of Ouattara by world leaders on December 23 and said it would deal only with legitimate governments, which many took to mean it would freeze Gbagbo out of the state accounts there.
“It is Ivory Coast’s wealth. No one can ban Ivory Coast from using its own resources,” Mello said. “We are 40 percent of the region’s economy and an even bigger share of its money supply. If they exclude us, it is the central bank that will fall.”
The Ivorian military prolonged a curfew in the pro-Ouattara Abidjan neighbourhood of Abobo, scene of clashes last week that killed at least seven police and four civilians, until next Saturday, according to an announcement on RTI.
Writing by Tim Cocks and Juliane von Reppert-Bismarck; editing by Noah Barkin