United Nations peacekeepers in Côte d’Ivoire, where former president Laurent Gbagbo refuses to step down despite his electoral defeat, are crucial to preventing a possible resumption of civil war, and they will respond with force if attacked, the top UN envoy in the country said today.
The UN Operation in Côte d’Ivoire (UNOCI) has the prime tasks of protecting civilians and guarding the Golf Hotel, where the clear winner of November’s run-off election, opposition leader Alassane Ouattara, and his Government are based in light of Mr. Gbagbo’s refusal to vacate the presidential palace, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s Special Representative Y. J. Choi noted.
The election, with its results certified by the UN, was meant to be the culminating point in reunifying the West African country, which was split by civil war in 2002 into a Government-controlled south ruled from Abidjan, the commercial capital, and a rebel-held north governed from the city of Bouaké.
“But for our protection of the Golf, President Ouattara’s Government could be forced to move to Bouaké, and that would mean the division of the country and perhaps the resumption of the civil war,” Mr. Choi said after meeting with the new president in the hotel.
Mr. Gbagbo has demanded the withdrawal of the 9,000-strong UNOCI. Not only has the UN refused this but the Security Council last month, in a unanimous resolution adopted under Chapter VII of the UN Charter, which allows for the use of force, authorized the immediate deployment of an additional 2,000 troops and three armed helicopters.
Mr. Choi has said the reinforcements will provide a “rapid reaction capability” essential for the protection of civilians both in Abidjan, where Gbagbo loyalists have launched attacks against civilians and UN personnel, and in the country’s west, which has seen an outburst of ethnic fighting that has already driven more than 50,000 people from their homes. More than 300 people have died in the violence.
UN patrols day and night in Abidjan’s Abobo neighbourhood attest to the mission’s determination to protect civilians, he added in a separate interview with UNOCI’s Peace Radio, dubbing harassment by Gbagbo loyalists as a “mini cold war.”
Asked whether the peacekeepers will react in the case of attacks, Mr. Choi replied: “Absolutely. We will not allow ourselves to be threatened by direct attacks. But for the moment they are not direct attacks, they are rather harassment, barricades, roadblocks here and there. But we’re still able to get provisions to the Golf Hotel.
“There are principles that we cannot accept. We are going to continue our freedom of movement,” he added, noting that the UN patrols now carry teargas grenades. “That proves that we are not going to let anybody prevent us from carrying out our prime mandate, which is the protection of civilians.”
More than 33,000 Ivorians have fled to neighbouring Liberia from western Côte d’Ivoire, where UN officials have warned that ethnic tensions stemming from national, racial and religious affiliation linked to the opposing camps could lead to genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes and ethnic cleansing. Some 20,000 people have been internally displaced
UN agencies have voiced concerns that if the current trends in refugee influx continue, there could be as many as 50,000 refugees in Liberia this month and 100,000 by the end of April.
UNOCI has been supporting the stabilization and reunification efforts in the country over the past seven years and was asked by all sides to certify the election results.