/ 2 January 2011

Don’t count on foreign troops, Gbagbo tells rival

Don't Count On Foreign Troops

Côte d’Ivoire’s Laurent Gbagbo told his presidential rival on Saturday not to expect foreign troops to install him in power by force, and repeated his call for talks to end the country’s violent political stand-off.

Gbagbo has refused to step down as president, even though the country’s electoral commission and world leaders have recognised his challenger Alassane Ouattara as the winner of a November presidential election. The dispute has triggered violence in a country still divided after a 2002-3 civil war.

Three presidents from West African regional bloc Ecowas are planning a second round of talks on January 3 with Gbagbo in a bid to convince him to cede power to Ouattara. Gbagbo has shrugged off a threat by the regional body to unseat him by force.

“You should not count on foreign armies to come and make him [Ouattara] president,” he said in an interview broadcast on state television on Saturday.

“I therefore extend my hand so we can talk,” he said. He repeated an offer for a recount, which Ouattara’s camp rejects.

Ouattara’s Prime Minister Guillaume Soro, confined with the rest of Ouattara’s government to the lagoon-side Golf Hotel under the protection of 600 UN troops, told reporters Gbagbo has only days in which to leave power peacefully.

The message the African neighbours were bringing “seems clear”, he said. “This is the last chance for Mr Gbagbo to get a peaceful departure from power and a guarantee of immunity.”

Earlier, a spokesperson for Ouattara said Ecowas must use military force soon or Gbagbo would become entrenched in power and become more difficult to remove.

Gbagbo has shown no sign of giving in to growing international pressure to step down as leader of the world’s top cocoa grower. A top court, run by one of his allies, overturned the November 28 election result that gave Ouattara victory.

The United States says more than 200 people have been killed since the stand-off. The United Nations has said Gbagbo may be criminally responsible for human rights violations, including killings and kidnappings by security forces.

“We are ready for dialogue with Ecowas,” Gbagbo’s campaign manager Pascal Affi N’Guessan told Reuters by phone. “But he [Gbagbo] won’t leave … We won’t negotiate on that question.”

The United States and the European Union have imposed sanctions on Gbagbo and his inner circle while the World Bank and the West African central bank have cut off his financing in an effort to weaken his grip on power.

Ouattara’s supporters say such measures are not enough to drive Gbagbo out without a credible threat of force.

“Neither sanctions nor international pressure have convinced Gbagbo to leave power,” Soro said. “We have yet to see a dictator leave power peacefully.”

Ecowas defence chiefs met last week in Nigeria to work on a possible intervention plan.

Asked on Friday if he would leave in the event of an Ecowas operation to remove him, Gbagbo told Euronews TV he would “think it over”, but he added “for the moment it’s not an issue.”

Soro said he asked the New Forces rebels still occupying the north since the civil war not to intervene, but to support whatever force does arrive to kick out Gbagbo.

Fearing a possible march by Gbagbo supporters, UN riot police armed with shields and teargas did drills along the road leading to the palm-fringed hotel, where the mission’s troops stand guard at sandbagged machinegun positions.

The roads have been blockaded by the Ivorian military since a shootout between pro-Gbagbo and pro-Ouattara forces on December 16. Only UN helicopters can get in or out, apart from the occasional supply truck.

“We’re trapped,” said Ouattara supporter Traore Dramane (24) an importer, who sleeps on the floor in a makeshift dormitory. “It’s too dangerous to leave. There are military forces everywhere. If I try to leave I might get killed.” – Reuters