/ 9 October 2012

UN report says Gbagbo supporters tried to recruit rebels

Cote d'Ivoire's former leader Laurent Gbagbo.
Cote d'Ivoire's former leader Laurent Gbagbo.

These insurgents took control of the north half of neighbouring Mali in a campaign to destabilise the volatile West African region, a UN diplomat and a Western official familiar with the document said on Monday.

The experts also accuse supporters of ex-president Laurent Gbagbo of trying to recruit Mali's military junta, which controls the other half of the country, to the destabilisation campaign – and of trying to seize power from Côte d'Ivoire's current President Alassane Ouattara, the two officials said.

The report by a UN panel of experts, which has been circulated to the UN Security Council, highlights the connection between the recent political upheavals in Côte d'Ivoire and Mali and is likely to intensify international concerns that radical groups that have links to al-Qaeda's North Africa branch are attempting to strengthen their presence across Africa.

It documents meetings between Gbagbo allies and the soldiers who seized power in Mali in March and with the radical group Ansar Dine, which took control of the north in April, the diplomat and Western official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because the report has not been made public.

Côte d'Ivoire headed to the brink of civil war in early 2011 when then-president Gbagbo refused to concede defeat after losing the presidential runoff vote to Ouattara. After months of violence, which claimed at least 3 000 lives, Ouattara took office in May 2011 but tensions remain high between his supporters and Gbagbo loyalists.

Gbagbo is accused of crimes against humanity, including murder and rape, for actions committed by his supporters after the election and is currently at the International Criminal Court in The Hague, Netherlands, awaiting trial.

Power vacuum
The military junta that ousted Mali's democratically elected leader accused him of failing to quell the rebellion in the north, which began in January. After the coup, Tuareg rebels took advantage of the power vacuum and within weeks took control of the north aided by a militant faction. Then, the extremists quickly ousted the Tuaregs and took control of half the country.

The panel's report strongly indicates that Gbagbo's supporters, seeking a return to power, are prepared to join forces with the coup leaders and extremist groups in Mali to destabilise the region, the UN diplomat and official said.

According to the UN diplomat, the panel reported that Gbagbo supporters and members of the Malian junta met in the Malian capital, Bamako, at the end of June.

The junta representatives expressed interest in supporting destabilisation operations that would compromise efforts by the regional group Economic Community Of West African States (Ecowas) and its current chairperson, the Côte d'Ivoire leader Ouattara, to promote peace and stability in the immediate region, the diplomat quoted the report as saying.

Last month, Mali formally requested military support from Ecowas and asked the UN Security Council to authorise military action to retake the north. But the international community is concerned that the coup leader, Captain Amadou Haya Sanogo, will oppose any intervention because it could dilute the considerable power he still wields in Bamako, where an interim government has been installed.

Draft resolution
Nonetheless, France is expected to circulate a draft Security Council resolution, possibly on Tuesday, to pressure Mali's government and Ecowas to agree quickly on a workable military plan to oust the militants in the north. France hopes an October 19 meeting in Bamako of the African Union, Ecowas, the UN and other key actors will agree on a plan for military intervention that the Security Council can endorse.

The report also documents a meeting between exiled Gbagbo allies and a militant representative on the border between Mauritania and Senegal, the Western official said.

The UN diplomat said Gbagbo supporters and Ansar Dine representatives discussed possible future cooperation, with a view to threatening peace and security in the area and providing possible military-technical assistance through mercenaries. The expert panel said it documented an SMS message exchange of a member of the pro-Gbagbo group where this meeting is mentioned, the diplomat said.

The report also described how three separate groups of exiled Gbagbo allies met on July 12 in Takoradi, Ghana, and agreed to join forces in an attempt to reclaim power from Ouattara, the Western official said.

Côte d'Ivoire officials have accused Gbagbo allies exiled abroad of masterminding a recent series of attacks on military positions in Côte d'Ivoire. At least nine attacks have been carried out since early August, the most recent of which hit the border town of Noe in late September, causing Côte d'Ivoire to close its borders with Ghana. Land and sea borders were only re-opened on Monday.

'Malicious lies'
The report could ramp up pressure on West African governments, notably Ghana, to enforce more than 20 arrest warrants issued by Côte d'Ivoire for Gbagbo allies accused of playing key roles in last year's post-election violence.

The official who saw the report said it implicated a number of high-profile exiled Gbagbo allies in the destabilisation plot, among them Justin Kone Katinan, a spokesperson for Gbagbo who was arrested in Ghana late last month. Other names include Gbagbo's second wife, Nady Bamba, and Charles Ble Goude, former leader of a pro-Gbagbo youth organisation who has been implicated by Human Rights Watch in grave crimes committed during the conflict.

A statement sent by a lawyer for Ble Goude, whose whereabouts are unknown, rejected the report, branding its allegations as "malicious lies which have been purposefully promoted by those who wish to prevent his return to public service" in Côte d'Ivoire.

"Charles Ble Goude, furthermore, regrets the lack of impartiality shown by the group of experts in failing to contact him through his legal representative in order to obtain his response to the allegations," the statement said. – Sapa-AP