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Gbagbo allies to hold massive rally in Abidjan

ABIDJAN, Mar 26 – Thousands of people are expected to gather for a 24-hour rally in support of Ivory Coast strongman Laurent Gbagbo on Saturday, as a bloody post-election crisis pushes the country to the brink of civil war.

Charles Ble Goude, Gbagbo\’s fiery youth minister and leader of the militant "Young Patriots", called on all Ivorians to attend the overnight rally outside the presidential palace to "show that Laurent Gbagbo has majority support."

The meeting comes amid mounting international concern that Gbagbo\’s refusal to cede power to internationally recognised election victor Alassane Ouattara is leading the country to full-blown civil war.

US President Barack Obama said late Friday that if Gbagbo and his supporters continued to cling to power, it would "lead to more violence, more innocent civilians being wounded and killed and more diplomatic and economic isolation."

The November 28 election "was free and fair," Obama said in a video message to the leaders and people of Ivory Coast. "And President Alassane Ouattara is the democratically elected leader of the nation."

The message came after the UN Security Council met Friday to discuss a draft resolution introduced by France and Nigeria to impose a heavy weapons ban in Abidjan.

The pro-Gbagbo rally was to take place in downtown Plateau, the administrative district of the economic capital Abidjan, once seen as the most cosmopolitan city in west Africa.

Meanwhile, as many as one million people have fled their homes as civilian areas are bombarded daily with rockets, mortars and shells, the UN refugee agency said.

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"Law and order is collapsing, humanitarian access is more and more difficult, hospitals are closing — we are very, very close to a civil war in Abidjan," former colonial power France\’s ambassador to the United Nations, Gerard Araud, said in New York on Friday.

The draft resolution demands an end to attacks against the UN mission and civilian populations by the Gbagbo camp and calls for the UN peacekeeping mission UNOCI to protect civilians, according to one diplomat.

"It\’s saying first, \’Gbagbo has to leave.\’ The second point is to stop the violence against the civilians," Araud said.

The International Crisis Group think tank, in an open letter to the Security Council, warned of ethnic cleansing and mass atrocities if the UN peacekeeping mission UNOCI was not strengthened, saying "civil war in the country has been reignited".

Clashes between forces loyal to the two rivals are estimated by the United Nations to have killed 52 people in the last week, with a total death toll of at least 462 people.

As mediation efforts have failed to resolve the crisis, violence has raged in Abidjan and the west of the country.

Ble Goude, called the "General of the Streets" for his ability to muster massive crowds, has called on young people "willing to die for their country" to enlist in Gbagbo\’s armed forces.

On Monday thousands of youths presented themselves at the army headquarters to sign up.

The November 28 presidential run-off vote was supposed to end a decade of political turmoil which divided the world\’s top cocoa producer into a rebel-held north and Gbagbo-controlled south after a failed coup in 2002.

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