, ABIDJAN, Dec 18 – Defiant Ivory Coast leader Laurent Gbagbo ordered UN and French peacekeepers out of the country on Saturday, accusing them of backing rebel fighters supporting his rival Alassane Ouattara.
The demand reflected mounting anger towards the international community from Gbagbo’s nationalist supporters, and came as his most notorious lieutenant urged his followers to make ready to fight for Ivory Coast’s sovereignty.
The United Nations, United States, European Union and Ivory Coast’s west African neighbours all demanded that Gbagbo cede power to Ouattara after both men claimed to have won last month’s presidential election.
But the veteran strongman retains control of the official armed forces and his backers have vowed to fight on, turning their anger on UN peacekeepers, former colonial power France and Ouattara’s own Ivorian supporters.
"The president of the Republic of the Ivory Coast has just asked for the immediate departure from Ivorian territory of UNOCI and the French forces that support it," Education Minister Jacqueline Lohoues-Oble said.
The United Nations and the international community have recognised Ouattara as president, but Gbagbo refuses to stand down.
As tension mounted between the two camps, Gbagbo’s supporters accused the United Nations 10,000-strong UNOCI peacekeeping force and France’s 900 troops in Ivory Coast of supporting pro-Ouattara rebel fighters.
The spokeswoman repeated these claims and said: "The Ivorian government considers that UNOCI has broadly failed in its mission in carrying out acts that are not in conformity with its mandate."
"This means that the Ivorian government henceforth opposes renewal of the operation’s mandate, which expires on December 20, 2010," she said, referring to the authority granted the mission by UN member states.
There was no immediate reaction from the United Nations to the demand, but UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has previously defended UNOCI’s work, called on Gbagbo to step down and vowed to protect Ouattara’s government.
The UNOCI mission deployed in 2004 to help end a civil war between Gbagbo’s southern forces and northern rebels dubbed the New Forces. The rebels now back Ouattara and Gbagbo’s order will increase fears of a new conflict.
"Play time is over," declared Charles Ble Goude, Gbagbo’s minister for youth, who has been under UN sanctions since 2006 for "acts of violence by street militias, including beatings, rapes and extrajudicial killings".
"We are going to defend the sovereignty of our country until the last drop of our sweat. I urge all Ivorians to make themselves ready for this combat. We are going to totally liberate our country," he told AFP.
In a sign of the rising tension, six men in military uniform opened fire overnight on a UN patrol returning to the force’s main base in Abidjan, ONUCI complained in a statement.
A UN sentry returned fire but there were no reports of anyone hurt in the clash, and the mission appealed for calm.
Ble Goude, who is best known as leader of the Young Patriot movement that led attacks on French interests and opposition supporters during a previous crisis in Ivory Coast in 2004, summoned his followers to a rally Saturday.
His involvement in the 2004 violence saw him named on a United Nations list of extremists subject to international travel bans and asset freezes.
But he has remained a loyal supporter of Gbagbo, and has been the most outspoken member of his cabinet during the political crisis triggered by the disputed results of the November 28 presidential election.
While Gbagbo retains control of ministries and the armed forces, Ouattara is holed up in a luxury hotel protected by an 800-strong force of UN peacekeepers, and is endorsed by the former colonial power France.
On Friday, France’s President Nicolas Sarkozy reiterated his call for Gbagbo to stand down, warning that he and his wife Simone faced direct international sanctions.
Sarkozy’s call matched one made by Washington and the United Nations, as well as the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), but drew a scathing response from the youth minister.
"He’ll have to march over our corpses to get to Gbagbo," warned Ble Goude, who is still nicknamed the "General of the Street" in Abidjan, calling on his followers to gather in the Yopougon district of the city.
Already on Thursday, street clashes between pro-Gbagbo security forces and Ouattara supporters left between 11 and 30 people dead, and the Red Cross has treated almost 550 wounded since the start of the stand-off.
There were other signs positions were hardening. Opposition newspapers were prevented from publishing on Friday, and there was an increased military and police presence across the sprawling port city of Abidjan.