Mbeki in Ivory Coast to Mediate as Gbagbo, Ouattara Each Claim Presidency

Former South African President Thabo Mbeki today sought to defuse an increasingly violent political crisis in Ivory Coast sparked by a disputed election that has seen two rivals laying claim to the presidency.

Laurent Gbagbo, 65, the incumbent, was sworn in as president at a ceremony at the presidential palace yesterday after the Constitutional Council declared him the winner of the Nov. 28 elections. Hours later, Alassane Ouattara said he had taken the oath of office, following a Dec. 2 announcement by the Electoral Commission that he won 54.1 percent of the vote.

Ouattara met Mbeki today and asked him to persuade “Laurent Gbagbo to respect the will of Ivorian people and to leave the presidency of Ivory Coast,” Anne Ouloto, Ouattara’s spokeswoman, said in a telephone interview from the commercial capital, Abidjan. Mbeki held separate talks with Gbagbo today, Mukoni Ratshitanga, the mediator’s spokesman, said in a mobile telephone text message.

The election was meant to unite the world’s top cocoa grower, which has been divided into a rebel-held north and government-controlled south since a 2002 uprising. The dispute over the results produced an increase in violence that left several dead during the campaign, with Ouattara supporters taking to the streets in protest.

The UN, the U.S. and European Union have sided with Ouattara, while the leaders of the armed forces in the former French colony have backed the incumbent Gbagbo.

Reappointed Soro

Ouattara yesterday reappointed Prime Minister Guillaume Soro to his post and asked him to form a new government. Soro today named a 13-member Cabinet, in which he will serve as defense minister, his spokesman Meite Sindou said in a telephone interview. Charles Koffi Diby was reappointed minister of economy and finance, while Jeannot Ahoussou was named justice minister.

The African Union appointed Mbeki to lead an emergency mission to Ivory Coast “to facilitate the rapid and peaceful conclusion of the electoral process and the efforts to find a way out of the crisis.” Mbeki, who was ousted as South African president in 2008, led previous mediation efforts during the uprising and is spearheading attempts to bring an end to conflict in Sudan.

Since yesterday, Ouattara supporters have used tables, rocks and pieces of wood to barricade streets and set car tires afire in Abidjan and the political capital Yamoussoukro, and police have used tear gas to disperse them.

Eighteen Killed

Clashes between the rival camps have claimed the lives of 18 people in Abidjan alone over the past two days, Amadou Coulibaly, a spokesman for Ouattara’s party, said late yesterday. Sporadic gunfire could be heard in the city today.

Six people died and four were seriously wounded in the central cocoa-producing town of Issia on Dec. 3, after pro- Gbagbo youths attacked shops owned by Ouattara supporters and looted a cocoa-bean warehouse, according to an opposition official who did not want to be identified for fear of reprisals.

In the central town of Bouake, Ouattara supporters held peaceful protests for a third day today.

“People are increasingly worried about the situation,” Philippe Kande, a resident of the town, said in a telephone interview. “Gbagbo is very unpredictable. Gbagbo should respect the will of the people. He is always talking about democracy, but he has shown that he does not care about democracy at all.”

Local officials at the Red Cross declined to comment on the reports of violence. Gendarmerie spokesman Ange Nouko didn’t answer calls to his mobile phone seeking comment.

The country’s borders, which were sealed off on Dec. 2, will reopen tomorrow, army spokesman Hilaire Gohourou said in a statement read on state television.

‘Rough Ride’

“It’s going to be a rough ride in the Ivory Coast,” Kissy Agyeman-Togobo, a partner at Songhai Advisory LLP, which serves clients interested in Africa, said by telephone from London late yesterday. “There is a very, very real threat of conflict. I think it will be difficult for Gbagbo to hang on.”

Ivory Coast’s growth has averaged 1.1 percent in the eight years since the conflict started as the cocoa-dependent country missed out on the wave of foreign investment in Africa from such nations as China. Gbagbo’s supporters hold Ouattara, 68, responsible for the revolt in 2002, a charge he denies.

Cocoa for March delivery climbed $67, or 2.3 percent, to 2,935 pounds in New York on Dec. 3 after jumping 4 percent the day before.

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Antony Sguazzin at asguazzin@bloomberg.net.

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