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Côte d’Ivoire poll dispute triggers military standoff

A standoff developed this week in Côte d’Ivoire after troops loyal to President Laurent Gbagbo sealed off the routes around a hotel housing his foe, Alassane Ouattara, who won the presidential election two weeks ago before the result was overturned.

Armed soldiers set up control points in Abidjan along the road to the Golf hotel, but were prevented from getting too close by former fighters from the New Forces rebel group, who control the north of the country and are backing Ouattara.

“The New Forces removed the checkpoint [nearest the hotel]. There was shooting but they fired in the air,” said Patrick Achi, an Ouattara spokesperson.

United Nations (UN) peacekeepers are also guarding the hotel to protect Ouattara, who has been overwhelmingly endorsed as the legitimate leader of Côte d’Ivoire by neighbouring countries, the UN and world leaders.

Gbagbo, who was declared the election winner after an ally in the constitutional council tore up the official result, has refused to cede power. The stalemate has raised the prospect of a rerun of the 2002-2003 conflict, which could threaten regional stability. At least 28 people were killed in the days before the poll, some of them by pro-Gbagbo death squads.

The European Union has increased the pressure on Gbagbo’s administration by imposing targeted sanctions on officials “obstructing the process of peace and reconciliation … and who are jeopardising the proper outcome of the electoral process”, ministers said in a statement. Measures include visa bans and asset freezes.

The United States has also threatened sanctions against Gbagbo, who has ruled Côte d’Ivoire for a decade and has the support of the military. In a televised address his army chief of staff, General Philippe Mangou, warned UN peacekeepers not to get involved in any conflict. “We advise our brothers in the ‘impartial forces’ to never again get the blood of Ivorians on their hands,” he said.

But Gbagbo faces almost complete diplomatic isolation. African leaders have been unusually strong in their condemnation of what amounts to an electoral coup. The African Union and the regional bloc Ecowas, of which Côte d’Ivoire is a member, have suspended the country until Ouattara is installed as president.

Ouattara, a former prime minister of Côte d’Ivoire, won 54% of the votes in the November 28 poll before the result was changed after allegations by Gbagbo of vote rigging in the north. —

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