, ABIDJAN, Dec 31 – Ivory Coast faced a New Year overshadowed by the threat of civil war as UN peacekeepers stared down threats on Friday to storm a hotel where they were protecting the internationally recognised president.
France meanwhile advised its citizens in Ivory Coast, "in particular families with children," to temporarily leave the West African state because of the "acute political crisis" there.
UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon warned UN troops would resist any assault on the temporary headquarters of Alassane Ouattara\’s shadow government, which he said could trigger civil war in the fragile West African state.
Ban said the UNOCI force would use "all necessary means to protect its personnel, as well as the government officials and other civilians at these premises of the hotel".
The UN chief was responding to a threat from strongman Laurent Gbagbo\’s most notorious lieutenant to storm his rival\’s base.
The UN envoy for the prevention of genocide, Francis Deng, said in New York that reports that the Abidjan homes of Gbagbo opponents "had been marked to identify their ethnicity were extremely worrying."
Gbagbo\’s notorious "Street General", Minister for Youth Charles Ble Goude, on Wednesday urged Ivorian youths to rise up after the New Year to seize control of Ouattara\’s headquarters in the waterfront Golf Hotel resort.
"From January 1, I, Charles Ble Goude and the youth of Ivory Coast are going to liberate the Golf Hotel with our bare hands," the political showman turned minister declared Wednesday, to a cheering crowd of hardline supporters.
The call came as the United Nations\’ chief peacekeeper accused Gbagbo\’s state media of "inciting hatred" against UN troops and as West African leaders promised to try once more to negotiate a peaceful settlement to the crisis.
"This is only the latest provocation from Gbagbo\’s camp," Ouattara\’s spokeswoman Anne Ouluto told AFP by telephone from the hotel, where Ivory Coast\’s internationally-recognised leader is effectively cornered.
"It\’s a false pretext to attack United Nations forces and create a genuine incident," she said, of Ble Goude\’s declaration.
The once-plush resort is protected by a small contingent of lightly-armed former rebel fighters known as the "New Forces" and 800 United Nations troops equipped with armoured vehicles and re-supplied by helicopter.
It is surrounded by Gbagbo\’s well-armed regulars, the Ivory Coast Defence and Security Forces (FDS), but Ouattara\’s camp is more concerned about Ble Goude\’s threat to send thousands of unarmed youths to storm the hotel.
Ouloto claimed that Ble Goude aimed to "replay the scenario of 2004", when his "Young Patriot" supporters marched on a hotel defended by French troops and provoked clashes in which at least 50 demonstrators were killed.
"They know that the United Nations will have no choice but to protect the president and to protect the president\’s election victory, so it\’s provocation. It\’s a pretext to create an incident," Ouluto said.
Gbagbo insists that he is the legitimate leader of Ivory Coast, and accuses France, the United States and the United Nations\’ UNOCI peacekeeping mission of conspiring with Ouattara to falsify the election results.
Gbagbo ruled out standing down voluntarily, saying that his departure did not provide "a guarantee that it would bring peace".
Supporters like Ble Goude have branded the Golf Hotel a rebel base, and both FDS troops and civilian protesters have begun to harass UN patrols in Abidjan, which is still firmly under the control of Gbagbo\’s forces.
Against this background, Ouattara\’s New Year\’s message to the country was downbeat, noting that "2010 ends in sadness and dismay", but he urged his followers to remain patient and minimise any further loss in human life.
Both Gbagbo and Ouattara claim to have won last month\’s Ivorian election, but only the latter has been recognised as president by the world community, including the ECOWAS regional group and the United Nations.
Hopes for a negotiated settlement have come to rest on the west African leaders represented by ECOWAS, who have voted to authorise military intervention if Gbagbo refuses to step aside for Ouattara.
A delegation of three West African presidents came to Abidjan on Tuesday to deliver their ultimatum, but left without a clear result, and have since said they are still pressing for a peaceful solution.