Post-election tensions in Ivory Coast threatened increasing violence in the world’s leading cocoa grower, as the United Nations rejected a government order to withdraw its peacekeeping force and mercenaries entered the country to support President Laurent Gbagbo.
“It looks to me like the country is on the brink of a kind of civil war,” John Campbell, a former U.S. ambassador to Nigeria and State Department official from 1975 to 2007, said in an interview. “The U.S. embassy ordered non-essential personnel be sent home, which means it is viewed as pretty serious.”
The UN Security Council voted 15-0 yesterday to extend the mandate of 9,000 troops for six months. The peacekeepers are providing security for Alassane Ouattara, who was certified by the UN as defeating Gbagbo in a Nov. 28 presidential run-off election.
Alain LeRoy, the head of UN peacekeeping operations, told reporters in New York that mercenaries have joined forces loyal to Gbagbo, who has ordered the peacekeepers to leave the country.
Violence has broken out since Ivory Coast’s Electoral Commission declared Ouattara the winner and the UN certified that result. Ouattara and Gbagbo, who also claimed victory, both took the oath of office on Dec. 4 and confrontations have followed almost daily since then, leaving at least 50 people dead and 200 injured.
Ivory Coast has been split between a rebel-held north and a government-controlled south since a 2003 cease-fire ended fighting that killed hundreds and displaced 1 million people. The UN sent peacekeepers into the country in 2004 to monitor the cease-fire, and currently has about 9,000 soldiers and civilian police there.
The Obama administration is ready to impose sanctions against Gbagbo to pressure him to accept his defeat, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said yesterday.
Gbagbo continues to cling to power “illegitimately,” Gibbs said. “We stand ready to impose targeted sanctions, individually and in concert with our partners around the world, on President Gbagbo, on his immediate family, on those that are associated with him.”
William Fitzgerald, U.S. deputy assistant secretary of state for West Africa, said the administration was “very close” to imposing a travel ban on as many as 40 members of Gbagbo’s cabinet, senior civil servants and military officers, plus their families.
“It is likely that within 24 to 48 hours we will implement the ban,” Fitzgerald said in an interview. “We will start with sanctions and continue with other means I cannot go into now.”
Asked about the possibility of U.S. or allied military intervention, Fitzgerald said “no option is off the table.”
Campbell said the U.S. could provide logistical support for military intervention organized by the African Union or the 15-nation Economic Community of West African States, both of which back Ouattara.
“It looks like the Obama administration is using the levers it has available to itself,” Campbell said “There is a whole range of things they could do that fall far short of sending in the Marines.”
The European Union also is considering sanctions targeting Gbagbo and officials of his government.
“We are not going to leave,” LeRoy, the head of UN peacekeeping, told reporters after yesterday’s Security Council meeting. “It is a very delicate and dangerous period, but we have a mandate to fulfill, and we will use all means necessary to fulfill that mandate.”
LeRoy said the UN has confirmed that “mercenaries,” probably from Liberia, have entered Ivory Coast. LeRoy said he didn’t know how many fighters were involved.
The Security Council condemned violence directed at civilians and UN peacekeepers, U.S. Ambassador Susan Rice told reporters in her capacity as president of the council this month. She said the Security Council warned all parties to the conflict that they would be held accountable for attacks.
Rice said the presence of mercenaries, while not confirmed to her, would be a source of “grave concern.”
Cargill Inc. yesterday said it removed its “small number” of expatriate employees from Ivory Coast. Cargill, the largest closely held U.S. company, has operated in Ivory Coast since 1998, and is following the advice of foreign governments and the UN, Susan Eich, a spokeswoman for the Minnetonka, Minnesota-based grain distributor, said in an e-mail.
The company has operations to buy, handle and export cocoa beans in Brazil, Cameroon, Ivory Coast, Indonesia and Vietnam.
The resolution adopted by the Security Council stated that it would consider authorizing deployment of more UN troops to Ivory Coast, possibly moving them from Liberia. The text also said the Security Council was prepared to impose “targeted sanctions” on anyone “seeking to undermine the outcome of the electoral process” or obstruct the work of the peacekeeping mission.
Young-jin Choi, head of the UN mission in Ivory Coast, said Gbagbo and his supporters “harassed” UN workers and have “distorted” the impartial role peacekeepers are playing in the crisis. Access to the Gulf Hotel in Abidjan, where Ouattara has his headquarters, has been blocked, denying delivery of food and water to UN troops and civilians.
“Our patrols are intended to monitor, observe and dissuade acts of violence and human rights violations,” Choi said, according to a transcript of his remarks given to reporters in New York. “Our rules of engagement allow us to fire only when we are fired at.”
Gbagbo’s camp has begun “sending armed young men to the domiciles of some UN staff, knocking at the door and asking them their departure date or entering their residence under the pretext of looking for weapons,” Choi said. “Their preferred time for such visits so far has been during the night. Such serious acts are a clear sign of lack of moderation that is essential in the exercise of power.”