/ 1 March 2011

UN charge on Ivorian arms smuggling is denied

Confusion surrounded UN charges on Monday that Belarus had broken an arms embargo against Côte d’Ivoire by delivering attack helicopters to Laurent Gbagbo, the leader who has refused to step down after a disputed election.

Gbagbo’s government denied the report as a “lie” and UN diplomats said the allegation had not been confirmed. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, whose office initially leveled the charge, later softened the allegation in comments to reporters.

A UN spokesperson indicated the accusation was based on reports received by UN-appointed experts monitoring the embargo.

“We’re trying to figure out if this allegation is credible,” a Security Council diplomat told Reuters.

“There’s a lot of confusion.”

The allegation follows a week of gun battles between forces loyal to Gbagbo and supporters of Alassane Ouattara, almost universally recognized as winner of the November 28 election.

The stand-off risks pushing the world’s top cocoa grower back into full-blown civil war. Cocoa futures rose to a 32-year peak on Monday as war fears increased.

Major powers and most African neighbours have recognized Ouattara as president but Gbagbo has refused to step down.

Gunfire erupted close to the centre of Côte d’Ivoire’s commercial capital Abidjan on Monday after a week of fighting in which a northern suburb was seized by insurgents who briefly knocked out the state TV and army communications transmitter.

November’s election was meant to heal divisions sown by a 2002 to 2003 civil war that left the nation divided into a rebel-run north and government-run south, but has worsened divisions. The United Nations said the number of Ivorian refugees in Liberia has reached 68 000, with another 40 000 internally displaced.

A spokesman for UN chief Ban issued a statement overnight saying, “The secretary-general has learned with deep concern that three attack helicopters and related materiel from Belarus are reportedly being delivered at [Côte d’Ivoire’s capital] Yamoussoukro for Mr Gbagbo’s forces.”

“This is a serious violation of the embargo against Ivory Coast which has been in place since 2004,” he added.

‘Direct violation’
Ban, speaking to reporters later after meeting US President Barack Obama in Washington, indicated the accusation had not been confirmed. He said the group of experts had “credible information that the government of Belarus may be providing attack helicopters to forces loyal to Gbagbo”.

“If it is confirmed, this will be a direct violation of [the] arms embargo by the Security Council,” Ban said. “We are trying to confirm this.”

UN Security Council and other diplomats said on condition of anonymity that neither the UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations nor the Group of Experts, which monitors sanctions violations, could confirm the allegation.

UN spokesperson Martin Nesirky said the group of experts “reported that it had received information that these three attack helicopters and related equipment were being delivered”.

“This Group of Experts and an officer from the UN mission’s embargo cell travelled to the airport … but was unable to verify … indeed was forced to withdraw,” he added.

The Belarussian foreign ministry denied violating any embargo, according to Russia’s Interfax news agency. Gbagbo government spokesman Ahoua Don Mello said, “No arms have been received in Ivory Coast in violation of the embargo.”

Côte d’Ivoire has been under an arms embargo since the last bout of serious violence in 2004, when pro-Gbagbo forces bombed French peacekeepers in the rebel-held north.

Clashes in the west have taken a heavy toll, with thousands fleeing into Liberia, itself still vulnerable.

“At the end of last week there was a huge increase … more than 20 000 over a few days,” Ellen Margrethe Loj, UN mission chief in Liberia, told Reuters.

As relations between Gbagbo’s camp and the UN peacekeeping mission deteriorate, attacks against UN staff by Gbagbo supporters have increased, mission chief YJ Choi told journalists in Senegal on Monday.

Youths loyal to Gbagbo kidnapped two Ukrainian mechanics working for the UN mission on Monday morning but released them in the afternoon, a UN spokesperson said. The abductions followed a call on Friday by a pro-Gbagbo youth group for roadblocks to prevent the movement of UN staff.

The European Union has banned its ships from docking at Ivorian ports and exporters have largely followed a call by Ouattara for a temporary embargo on cocoa supplies.

Stocks of unexported cocoa at ports in top grower Côte d’Ivoire reached 433 296 tonnes by February 7, owing to EU sanctions and a ban on exporting in place since January 24.

Other sanctions have paralyzed the country’s banking sector, prompting analysts to forecast a shrinking economy for months. – Reuters