Côte d'Ivoire's Ouattara seeks recovery despite stand-off

Côte d’Ivoire presidential claimant Alassane Ouattara has called for an end to sanctions and sought to return the war-torn country to normal, despite a continuing military stand-off with incumbent Laurent Gbagbo.

United Nations-backed Ouattara said his forces had blockaded Gbagbo in the presidential residence in Abidjan and he had asked the European Union to lift sanctions on the main ports of the world’s top cocoa producer.

With Gbagbo refusing to step down, Ouattara, who the UN says won a presidential election meant to draw a line under Côte d’Ivoire’s 2002/03 civil war, took the first steps towards assuming executive powers in a televised address on Thursday.

He promised to restore security and utilities, meet basic needs and pay salaries after five months of conflict which has killed thousands of people and left residents of what was once West Africa’s most prosperous country without food and water.

In New York, Ouattara’s UN envoy accused Gbagbo of arming his supporters all over the country but said Ouattara would soon announce an end to a ban on cocoa exports he imposed in January. Dealers say about 500 000 metric tonnes of cocoa is stuck in the country.

“I have asked that European Union sanctions on the ports of Abidjan and San Pedro and certain public entities, be lifted,” Ouattara said in a speech broadcast on French television.

“I have also asked the central bank BCEAO to reopen its branches in Ivory Coast, to ensure a resumption of operations in all banks so as to enable the payment of salaries and arrears in the shortest possible time,” he said on television channel LCI.

Diplomatic and military efforts to oust Gbagbo this week have been met with fierce resistance and Ouattara said his residence had been sealed off to protect the area.

“As for the outgoing President Mr Laurent Gbagbo, who has entrenched himself at the presidential residence in Cocody with heavy weapons and mercenaries, a blockade has been established around the perimeter to secure the inhabitants of the district,” Ouattara said.

Crimes to be investigated
A week of fighting for control of the economic capital Abidjan has driven terrified residents to scramble to find food and water, with frequent power cuts and hospitals overwhelmed with wounded.

“Every morning people have to take jerrycans to walk around the neighbourhood and search for water,” Cocody resident Jean-Claude said. “As for food, there is nothing left. People have to queue up in long lines to buy even a single baguette.”

Ouattara said he had asked generals to take all necessary steps to maintain order and security of goods, people and their movements and also secure the delivery of food to markets and medicines in hospitals and health centres.

He said steps would also be taken to shed light on all crimes committed during the conflict and would collaborate with international organisations to investigate human rights abuses and punish those found guilty.

The International Criminal Court prosecutor said on Tuesday he was in talks with West African states about referring alleged atrocities in the Côte d’Ivoire to the court after a reported massacre in the west of the country.

“We have established a national commission of inquiry whose findings will be made public and the perpetrators of crimes will be severely punished,” Ouattara said.

UN peacekeepers have surrounded Gbagbo’s “last defenders”, France said on Thursday, after a week of heavy fighting to unseat him. French Defence Minister Gerard Longuet said Gbagbo had about 1 000 men, 200 of whom were in the residence.

A UN spokesperson in Abidjan told Reuters the United Nations had forces on standby in the upscale Cocody neighbourhood.

“We have sent a patrol to Cocody and the surrounding area, but it is not to intervene,” UN spokesperson Hamadoun Toure told Reuters by telephone. “I am not aware that Ouattara has requested our intervention at this stage.”

Gunfire could be heard on Thursday coming from Gbagbo’s presidential palace in the Plateau district and also in the Cocody neighbourhood where his residence is located.

“Right now there is shooting every 30 minutes,” a Cocody resident, who gave his name as Jean-Claude, said by phone.

There was no sign of a major assault by Ouattara’s forces, repelled on Wednesday by Gbagbo’s feared Republican Guard and youth militias armed with heavy weapons, after talks led by the United Nations and France to secure Gbagbo’s departure failed.

Earlier this week Ouattara’s spokesperson said his forces had been told not to kill him. UN envoy Youssoufou Bamba said on Thursday Ouattara’s people were no longer negotiating with Gbagbo but wanted him captured and brought to justice.

France has taken a leading role in talks to persuade Gbagbo to hand over to Ouattara and end the stand-off.

Helicopters from French forces and the United Nations peacekeeping mission bombarded Gbagbo’s heavy weapons stockpiles earlier this week, including those near his residence.

Political analysts said Ouattara forces, who swept south last week in a lightly contested march toward Abidjan, could struggle to defeat Gbagbo’s remaining presidential guard without French and UN help.

Gbagbo has ruled Côte d’Ivoire since 2000 and blames Paris for supporting the north of the country in the civil war of 2002-03. Rebels from that war now make up the bulk of Ouattara’s force. - Reuters



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