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Sanctions bite in Ivory Coast

ABIDJAN, Feb 6 – International sanctions against Ivory Coast strongman Laurent Gbagbo are beginning to bite with ordinary Ivorians feeling the pinch as the country\’s once-vibrant economy suffers.

Banks and businesses are closed, petrol threatens to run dry and pay cheques are not arriving as the outside world tries to oust Gbagbo in favour of his rival Alassane Ouattara, deemed to have won November elections.

The situation threatens unrest which may or may not bring a backlash against Gbagbo, who continues to hold the reins of power in Abidjan while Ouattara, whose support base is mainly in the north, remains holed up in a seafront hotel under UN protection.

Choi Young-Jin, head of the UN mission in Ivory Coast, said Friday Gbagbo was struggling to pay workers and a halt to African funding had swung the pendulum of the country\’s political crisis back in favour of Ouattara.

The West African regional central bank, the BCEAO, for countries including Ivory Coast which use the CFA franc, has cut links with Gbagbo and choked off funding.

At the end of January Ivory Coast failed to pay 30 million dollars in interest on loans from private creditors.

Diplomats say Gbagbo needs 100-150 million dollars a month to pay 55,000 troops and 104,000 civil servants, which one analyst said had to be kept loyal.

"It must be very difficult for him to continue to have financial resources," Choi told reporters after briefing a closed session of the Security Council in New York.

"In December, he paid everybody. In January, he retained payments to teachers and pensions. We do not know if this was just a delay. We have to see carefully how this unfolds," Choi added.

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The money question would be "crucial" to the result of the political battle, the envoy said.

But a Gbagbo aide said "we can still go for at least a couple of months without a problem."

When Gbagbo tried to take over the BCEAO\’s high street branches the central bank retaliated by halting the electronic clearing arrangement, throwing Ivory Coast\’s banking system into chaos.

Gbagbo\’s regime ordered the banks to resort to the old manual system, but a banker said some were refusing to do so as it was time-consuming and lacked security.

"In a week or 10 days everything risks freezing up," he said.

Gbagbo\’s spokesman Ahoua Don Mello admitted some "technical difficulties" but said a new system was being rolled out.

However sanctions are forcing some businesses to shut down or lay off workers, prices are rising and trade operations are disrupted.

"The economic and social situation is deteriorating drastically," the Ivory Coast business federation has warned.

Ouattara\’s camp has ordered a halt in exports of the country\’s main revenue earner, cocoa, until the end of February to bring more pressure on Gbagbo, and the main exporters appear to have obeyed, sending prices soaring on world markets.

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The national refinery company is having increasing difficulty in obtaining supplies of oil, and experts predict shortages of petrol and gas before long.

In Washington US ambassador to Ivory Coast Phillip Carter said Gbagbo had resorted to "stealing money" from companies through extortion to pay salaries.

Choi, who has been sleeping in his Abidjan office for the past two months, said there had been several swings in the balance of power since the crisis erupted.

"Ouattara\’s camp had the momentum in his favour because he won the election," Choi said. But after a planned anti-Gbagbo march had to be called off on December 16, the strongman took the upper hand.

"Now with the decision of the West African central bank in favour of President Ouattara, the momentum is shifting in his favour again. So the dynamics are always changing."

In Abidjan each side claims it has time on its side on the economic front, as the African Union prepares a new mediation push and West African states hold off on threatened military action against Gbagbo.

If people are not paid, "are they going to stand by until they starve? A riot would be directed against Ouattara, not Gbagbo," one of the strongman\’s aides said.

Ouattara spokesman Patrick Achi replied that Ivorians would be prepared to make sacrifices for a time to secure peace and prosperity in the future.

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