, NAIROBI, Kenya, Jan 18 – Prime Minister Raila Odinga was not in any danger following a gun battle between youths loyal to Ivory Coast strongman Laurent Gbagbo and UN peacekeepers in Abidjan.
The Prime Minister\’s office in Nairobi said Mr Odinga was not anywhere near the scene of the violent clash, contrary to reports.
Mr Odinga, the African Union envoy in the mediation process is in Ivory Coast trying to persuade Gbagbo to cede power to his bitter rival Alassane Ouattara who has been recognised internationally as the winner of the November Presidential runoff.
"Mr Odinga was still airborne when the clashes took place and was not in any UN convoy as reported," the statement sent by Mr Odinga\’s spokesman Dennis Onyango said.
"The PM landed in Abidjan moments after the incident and was driven to his hotel by UN troops, as has been the case before," Mr Onyango said.
"Mr Odinga is safely in his hotel and not at a UN facility. As has been the case before, he is guarded at the hotel by UN troops."
Reports had suggested that supporters of Cote d\’Ivoire incumbent leader Laurent Gbagbo calling themselves "the youth patriots" who had lined up the road leading to the hotel where Mr Odinga is staying had accosted UN peacekeepers providing his security.
The statement released in Nairobi said: "The clashes were part of the growing tension between Mr Gbagbo\’s supporters and the UN troops, which has led to other clashes in the recent past and may have had nothing to do with Mr Odinga\’s visit at all."
Tension has been growing between supporters of Mr Gbagbo and the UN troops ever since he demanded that the UN troops leave his country.
Last Thursday, the UN reported that youths loyal to Mr Gbagbo had attacked and burnt UN vehicles in the Riviera district of the main city, Abidjan.
On Tuesday, Mr Gbagbo gave new assurances that he was open to talks over the tussle for the Ivory Coast presidency as regional leaders mulled military intervention to break the deadlock.
Mr Gbagbo had accepted an offer of talks with his rival made on Monday by African Union mediator in the weeks-long crisis.
There was "an offer of dialogue between the two camps. It was accepted… a meeting depends on the response of the Ouattara camp," Ahoua Don Mello said.
Mr Ouattara\’s team would not immediately comment.
Mr Gbagbo has said before that he is willing to talk with his rival over the dispute but he has refused all offers to give up the presidency peacefully, including exile and immunity from prosecution for crimes against humanity.
Mr Ouattara was recognised as winner of a November 28 election by the Ivory Coast\’s voting authority and the international community.
Mr Gbagbo, who has ruled the world\’s top cocoa-producing nation for 10 years, was declared victor by the Constitutional Council.
He retains control of the presidential palace and the army, while Mr Ouattara is based in an Abidjan hotel under protection from northern ex-rebels and some 800 peacekeepers.
Mr Odinga held talks with both men on Monday, describing his meeting with Mr Gbagbo as "very useful".
"We have had very fruitful discussions with president Ouattara and… subject to certain conditions being met, there may be some discussions further tomorrow," he added.
With mounting fears of a return to civil war that have sent thousands fleeing across the border, the United Nations Security Council was to vote Tuesday to send 2,000 extra troops into the West African nation.
Regional military chiefs meanwhile opened two days of talks in Mali Tuesday that will finalize a last-ditch plan to use force to remove Gbagbo, but France warned of the risk of heavy casualties.
Pro-Ouattara suburbs of Abidjan were shut down Tuesday by a general strike called to add pressure on but elsewhere in the city it was business as usual, AFP reporters said.
"We are tired of these disruptions… We want to go about our business," complained a woman in the Abobo suburb where public transport was disrupted, and shops and schools shut.
The UN Security Council vote Tuesday to send in 2,000 extra troops will bring the UNOCI force up to about 11,500 troops.
The new number is the maximum requested by UN commanders who fear a growing showdown with Gbagbo, whose forces have attacked UN vehicles and peacekeepers. Gbagbo has demanded several times that UN forces leave his country.
Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) military chiefs meeting in Bamako would work off a report drawn up in December which envisages Nigeria at the head of a regional intervention force and the deployment of combat troops and attack helicopters, a participant told AFP.
"Our preparations are very advanced and we are ready to move into action if necessary and that must be clear," senior Nigerian officer Olusegun Petinrin said.
Benin, Burkina Faso, Senegal, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Mali and Togo are expected to take part to varying degrees, according to the report. Niger is still to confirm its participation. Ghana has ruled out sending troops.
French Foreign Minister Michele Alliot-Marie warned in Paris however: "The use of force should only be considered as a very last resort because given the balance of the armed forces there would be the risk of a high number of casualties."
The United Nations appealed Tuesday for 88 million dollars to ward off a looming "humanitarian crisis" that could affect two million Ivorians.
More than 25,400 people have fled Ivory Coast, the overwhelming majority of them – more than 25,000 – to neighbouring Liberia, it said.
Follow the author at https://twitter.com/momanyibernard