Forces loyal to the former president of Côte d’Ivoire, Laurent Gbagbo – who refuses to step down despite his electoral defeat – have opened fire towards United Nations peacekeepers in a new “act of aggression,” according to the UN envoy on the ground there.
“The situation is very, very hostile but our spirit remains high,” Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s Special Representative and head of the UN Operation in Côte d’Ivoire (UNOCI), Y. J. Choi, told a news conference in New York today by video-link from Abidjan, the West African country’s commercial capital.
In the latest attack, UN peacekeepers stationed at the Pullman Hotel, in Abidjan, were waiting for the arrival last night of the African Union (AU) emissary, Kenya’s Prime Minister Raila Odinga, who was escorted by a UNOCI patrol, when a group of young people from the Gbagbo camp encircled them.
“The armed elements, which were supporting them, opened fire in the direction of the UNOCI vehicles, forcing the peacekeepers to respond by shooting in the air,” the mission, which has around 9,000 peacekeepers, said in a press statement.
Mr. Gbagbo has refused to step down despite the internationally recognized victory of opposition leader Alassane Ouattara in November’s run-off elections. Peacekeepers from UNOCI are currently protecting Mr. Ouattara and members of his new government in Abidjan’s Golf Hotel against the already six-week blockade siege by Gbagbo loyalists.
The Security Council is expected tomorrow to vote on a resolution to authorize another 2,000 peacekeepers, as well as the temporary transfer of three armed helicopters, from the UN peacekeeping mission in neighbouring Liberia. Mr. Gbagbo has demanded UNOCI’s withdrawal – which the UN has rejected.
The reinforcements, Mr. Choi said, will provide a “rapid reaction capability” essential for the protection of civilians both in Abidjan, where Gbagbo loyalists have launched attacks, and in the country's west, which has seen an outburst of ethnic fighting.
Until ten days ago, the Gbagbo loyalists’ hostility was largely confined to rhetoric and propaganda on television but now it has been transformed into actions, he noted.
“They are shooting at our convoys; fortunately nobody got killed yet but it’s very close,” Mr. Choi said. “They are shooting at us and they attacked and ransacked provision trucks at 4 o’clock in the afternoon escorted by UN security forces.”
Mr. Choi added that the Gbagbo forces are mostly using and paying youth groups, numbering in the hundreds to the thousands, “to attack us and we cannot fire at civilians.” Part of UNOCI’s mandate is to protect civilians and ensure its own freedom of movement.
The mission has been supporting efforts over the past seven years to reunify a country split by a civil war in 2002 into a government-controlled south and a rebel-held north. November’s run-off election was meant to be a culminating point in this process.
On the situation around the Golf Hotel, where Mr. Ouattara is receiving UN protection, Mr. Choi likened it to a “cat and mouse game.”
“When the hard boiled presidential guard security force, the Republican Guard and special operations group, guard – the situation is very, very severe,” the envoy said. “On the other hand when the regular army and the police are guarding the blockade people and provisions can pass. As time goes by there are very many people in a small space. The situation is deteriorating. Psychologically also, it is not very healthy.”
Although those inside are not suffering thirst or hunger, and medicines sometimes get through, “something has to be done, it cannot go on like this,” he added.
The AU emissary, Kenya’s Prime Minister Raila Odinga, is meeting both sides in Abidjan. Mr. Choi said the situation is still deadlocked, with Mr. Gbagbo proposing a power-sharing arrangement and Mr. Ouattara – like the UN, AU and regional African groups – insisting that he step down. With 18 elections due in Africa this year, it would be a bad precedent if the loser was allowed to stay on, Mr. Choi noted.
Regarding Mr. Gbagbo’s possible departure, the Secretary-General’s Special Representative said the Economic Community of West African States still has a military option on the table, and that Mr. Gbagbo would not be able to pay the 60,000-strong security forces and the 140,000 civil servants if his access to the region’s common currency dried up.
The turmoil from the elections has displaced tens of thousands of people, mainly in the west of the country where an ethnic conflict has erupted. This is not one-sided as in Abidjan where the attacks are largely committed by Gbagbo loyalists, Mr. Choi said at the press conference.
The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) is strengthening its presence to cope with the crisis, deploying teams in the towns of Man and Danané in the west to register more than 18,000 internally displaced people (IDPs) and monitor their protection needs.
UNHCR “is particularly concerned about conditions at the Catholic mission in the town of Duékoué, where some 13,000 people have sought shelter,” it said in a statement. “The church compound there does not have the sanitation facilities to cope with the numbers, garbage is accumulating, and the risks of disease are growing.”
Meanwhile in eastern Liberia, where 30,000 refugees have fled, work is under way on a new camp in the town of Bahn, but the difficult jungle conditions have made this slower going than anticipated, UNHCR reported. Two bulldozers have been brought in from Sierra Leone to speed up the clearing of land, which until now had been done by hand. UNHCR estimates that some 600 Ivorians are crossing the border into Liberia each day.
In Geneva, humanitarian agencies with a presence in West Africa today launched a $32.7 million regional emergency plan in order to be prepared for humanitarian needs that could arise due to Côte d'Ivoire's political crisis.
The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) has warned that two millions Ivorians – including 100,000 refugees and 450,000 IDPs – could be affected if a major humanitarian crisis develops.
The six-month appeal aims to allow UN agencies and non-governmental organizations to secure funds that would be used to provide timely and effective humanitarian aid in Côte d'Ivoire and in the neighbouring countries of Guinea, Mali, Burkina Faso and Ghana in vital sectors. The aid will include support for protection, health, water and sanitation, education, food and nutrition. The funds will also be used to assist those already affected by the ongoing crisis.
In a statement today, OCHA said that the current crisis is already affecting lives and livelihoods of both the displaced and host communities. Displaced children are unable to attend school and families have lost their sources of income. Humanitarian aid workers also estimate that as many as 420,000 nationals of neighbouring countries currently living in Côte d’Ivoire could return to their countries of origin and require assistance, notably in transit camps, should the situation further deteriorate.