, ABIDJAN, Jan 2 – Pressure ratcheted up Sunday on Ivory Coast\’s defiant leader Laurent Gbagbo to quit even as his rival faced the threat of a mob attack on his internationally recognised government\’s headquarters.
Gbagbo\’s notorious "Street General", Minister for Youth Charles Ble Goude, had urged Ivorian youths to rise up after the New Year to seize control of Alassane Ouattara\’s headquarters in the waterfront Golf Hotel resort.
But as the African Union mediator in the crisis, Kenyan Prime Minister Raila Odinga, began his latest round of shuttle diplomacy with a pledge to "protect democracy" in the west African nation, the crowds of youths failed to show.
"Everything is calm at the hotel, we\’re very serene," said Patrick Achi, spokesman for Ouattara\’s besieged government under Prime Minister Guillaume Soro.
Tensions have risen steadily in the deadly standoff since Gbagbo and Ouattara both claimed victory in a November 28 presidential run-off vote that it was hoped would end a decade of crisis in Ivory Coast.
The entrenched leaders have fired off a series of deadlines at each other, with Ouattara\’s latest call for Gbagbo to quit expiring unheeded at midnight on New Year\’s eve.
AU mediator Odinga set off Sunday from Nairobi to Nigeria en route for Abidjan on what he called "a peace mission to protect democracy and the voice of the people of Ivory Coast."
"Mr Odinga left the country this morning for Abuja, Nigeria, where he will hold talks with… (Nigerian President) Goodluck Jonathan, who is also the Chairman of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) on the situation in Ivory Coast," a statement from his office said.
"Tomorrow (Monday), Mr Odinga will join the presidents of Benin, Sierra Leone and Cape Verde, who have been delegated by ECOWAS to travel to the Ivory Coast with a message from the bloc for incumbent president Laurent Gbagbo," it said.
The trio of presidents, due to return to Abudja on Tuesday, has so far failed to convince Gbagbo to step down despite ECOWAS brandishing its own threat of military intervention to oust the strongman if mediation fails.
Ouattara\’s once-plush hotel 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 there are fears of a repeat of 2004 violence if Ble Goude makes good on his threat to send thousands of unarmed youths to storm the hotel.
Gbagbo has already accused the UN peacekeeping troops of having shot at civilians and said they must leave.
The UN operation in Ivory Coast "ONUCI fired on our citizens, two of our citizens whom you have seen on television, who are now at the Abidjan military hospital," Gbagbo said on state RTI television.
He was referring to an incident on Wednesday when UN forces clashed with a hostile crowd. ONUCI formally denied that it fired any shots at the mob.
"It is not the role of UN forces to shoot people, nor is it their role to fight a war," said Gbagbo. "It is their role to reassure, but, as is happening, they no longer do."
He also called for the French troops who back up the UN forces to leave Ivory Coast.
Gbagbo said he had called for the troops\’ departure through diplomatic channels.
He had already called for French and UN forces to pull out on December 18, about three weeks after the election, alleging they were backing his rival Ouattara.
Both Gbagbo and Ouattara claim to have won last month\’s presidential election, but only the latter has been recognised as president by the world community, including ECOWAS and the United Nations.