, ABIDJAN, Jan 6 – Ivory Coast\’s Laurent Gbagbo will lift a siege on his presidential rival if former rebels protecting him go, a minister said on Wednesday, insisting an amnesty for the embattled leader was not on the cards.
Foreign Minister Alcide Djedje said that strongman Gbagbo, who most of the world says lost November\’s presidential run-off but has refused to relinquish power, would not go into exile despite offers aimed at ending the crisis.
"It was a question of the New Forces soldiers leaving the hotel, a condition for lifting the blockade," Djedje told journalists, denying Gbagbo had said he would lift the siege as reported by African mediators.
Gbagbo\’s Security and Defence Forces (FDS) have barred access to the Golf Hotel where the internationally recognised election victor, Alassane Ouattara, and his camp have been besieged since shortly after the November 28 poll.
The hotel has been protected by around 800 UN peacekeepers as well as the ex-rebel New Forces allied with Ouattara\’s camp since troops shot dead several of his supporters as they marched on state television on December 16.
"The Ivorian army feels it cannot tolerate that 300 heavily armed soldiers from the former rebellion should be in the hotel. That is a threat including for president Gbagbo whose residence is five minutes away by boat."
"If the FN soldiers go to Bouake, the blockade will be lifted," Djedje said, referring to the former rebels\’ northern powerbase.
With so many UN troops tied up protecting Ouattara, peacekeeping chief Alain Le Roy said in New York that he would seek an extra 1,000 to 2,000 reinforcements for the over 9,500-strong mission in coming days.
He also cited growing hostility from the local population because of reports on Gbagbo-controlled state television that peacekeepers had been shooting at unarmed civilians, something the UN vehemently denies.
The international community has said that Ouattara won the vote and that Gbagbo should step down. Ivory Coast\’s neighbours have said they will send in their own troops to topple him if he does not go.
The foreign minister said there had been no discussion with mediators of an amnesty for political crimes that may have been committed since the election if Gbagbo went peacefully, after such an offer was made public on Wednesday.
"There was no question of an amnesty. That must be made clear," he said, adding that the veteran leader would also not be going into exile in the United States as suggested by Washington.
"President Gbagbo doesn\’t need to go to Washington, he\’s fine where he is and will stay where he is," Djedje said.
The top US diplomat for Africa, assistant secretary of state Johnnie Carson, repeated Washington\’s call for Gbagbo to stand down, but warned opportunities for a peaceful solution were diminishing.
With no visible progress in the confrontation between the two presidents that has seen at least 180 people killed, the African Union said earlier Gbagbo would not be prosecuted for any post-election crimes if he went peacefully.
"There will be an amnesty for him in that he will not be prosecuted or persecuted," Kenyan Prime Minister Raila Odinga, who is mediating the deadly stand-off on behalf of the AU, said on his return from Abidjan.
"And in the event that he decides to remain in the country, he will be allowed to go about his business normally," Odinga added.
The chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, Luis Moreno-Ocampo, has said it is monitoring reports of abuses by Gbagbo security forces and would charge anyone inciting atrocities.
West African military chiefs have set in motion plans to oust Gbagbo if negotiations fail, with another crisis mediation mission to be decided soon.
Ivory Coast\’s Independent Electoral Commission as well as the United Nations declared Ouattara the winner of the November 28 run-off poll, while the Constitutional Council said that Gbagbo won.
Both men have been sworn in as president and Gbagbo claims there is an international plot to depose him after more than a decade in power. The crisis has sparked fears of a return to civil war.
The UN says at least 179 people have been killed in post-election violence but that it has been barred from investigating reports of mass graves.
UN rapporteurs said they feared violations being committed amounted to "crimes against humanity".