, ABIDJAN, Dec 20 – Tension mounted between Ivory Coast strongman Laurent Gbagbo and the international community on Monday, as the United Nations complained of rights abuses and the European Union slapped sanctions on him.
Gbagbo has rejected demands he cede power to his rival Alassane Ouattara, and has instead ordered UN peacekeepers to leave the country, stirring fears the fragile west African state might plunge back into chaos.
The United Nations has refused Gbagbo\’s order to withdraw its 10,000-strong UNOCI force, and its chief human rights official accused Gbagbo\’s security forces of involvement in dozens of alleged kidnappings and murders.
The European Union decided Monday to slap visa bans on Gbagbo and 18 of his inner circle, diplomats said. The measure will take up to 48 hours to come into force, and a decision to freeze assets for the 19 will be taken separately.
Those listed for sanctions include top presidential advisers, senior security officials and military officers, the head of state television, Gbagbo\’s powerful and feared wife Simone and her bodyguard.
Former colonial power France, the United States and Canada have also threatened sanctions, while the African Union and Ivory Coast\’s West African neighbours in the ECOWAS bloc have demanded Gbagbo leave office.
UN peacekeepers continue to patrol the restive port city of Abidjan, Ivory Coast\’s sprawling commercial capital, supported by France\’s 900-strong Licorne, a holdover from Paris\’ formerly much larger military presence.
Both Gbagbo and Ouattara claim to have won last month\’s election, and both have had themselves declared president, but the incumbent has so far retained control of the official armed forces and of Abidjan\’s ministry buildings.
Ouattara has been recognised as president by the international community, and is supported by the former rebel movement that controls Ivory Coast north of the 2003 ceasefire line that divides the country into two armed camps.
But in the south, home to the government and the cocoa ports that dominate Ivory Coast\’s economy, his movements are limited to the grounds of the Golf Hotel, a luxury waterfront resort in Abidjan protected by UN "blue helmets".
Meanwhile, in the poor suburbs of the city, there are reports of gangs in uniform raiding houses at night and "disappearing" suspected Ouattara backers.
On Sunday, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay expressed concern about "the growing evidence of massive violations of human rights" in the restive West African country since Thursday.
"In the past three days there has been more than 50 people killed, and over 200 injured," she said in a statement issued in Geneva, vowing "to ensure that perpetrators are held accountable for their actions."
She said witnesses blamed "armed individuals in military uniform accompanied by elements of the Defence and Security Forces or militia groups". Ivory Coast\’s official "Defence and Security Forces" back Gbagbo\’s rule.
"Abducted persons are reportedly taken by force to illegal places of detention where they are held incommunicado and without charge. Some have been found dead in questionable circumstances," Pillay added.
Paris also urged Gbagbo to restrain his forces, and warned Licorne would protect France\’s estimated 15,000 expatriate citizens in Ivory Coast, where they still have major economic interests 50 years after independence.
"If he does not want to have deaths on his conscience, he needs to hold back his troops," Foreign Minister Michele Alliot-Marie told French media Sunday.
"Is he going to be someone who will stay in history as a democrat, or someone who will leave the image of someone who has fired on Ivorians?"
But, rather than showing any signs of preparing to back down, Gbagbo has instead hardened his position and his most notorious lieutenant has embarked on a series of daily rallies around Abidjan to stir up hardline supporters.
Youth minister and "Street General" Charles Ble Goude, who is under UN sanctions for "acts of violence by street militias, including beatings, rapes and extrajudicial killings", vows to fight for Ivory Coast\’s sovereignty.
The United Nations Security Council was to meet later Monday to discuss renewing the mandate of the ONUCI peacekeeping force, which is to expire on December 31. Gbagbo opposes its renewal, while Ouattara supports it.