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Gbagbo warns that ouster attempts could spark war

Ivory Coast's Laurent Gbagbo on Sunday showed no signs of giving up power, warning that attempts to oust him could destroy the regional economy and cause civil war. West African leaders have threatened to use force if Gbagbo does not step aside.


AFP - Ivory Coast strongman Laurent Gbagbo on Sunday appeared bent on clinging to power, warning West African leaders any attempt to oust him could ruin the regional economy and trigger civil war.

On Tuesday, three West African presidents will visit Abidjan in a bid to convince the defiant 65-year-old leader to step down, a last-ditch plea that comes backed by a threat of military intervention.

But Gbagbo, who claims to have won last month's presidential election, is in no mood to stand aside for his long-time rival Alassane Ouattara, who has been recognised as the victor by UN vote monitors and world powers.

Several international leaders, including UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, warn that Gbagbo's stubbornness could plunge Ivory Coast back into civil war.

But Gbagbo's supporters turned the warning around, claiming instead that it is the threat of military action by the West African bloc ECOWAS that poses the greater risk of mass civilian casualties and a regional conflagration.

The regime's spokesman Ahoua Don Mello branded the West African move a "Western plot directed by France" and warned that military action could put millions of regional immigrants in Ivory Coast in danger.

"The people of Ivory Coast will mobilise. This boosts our patriotism. This strengthens our faith in Ivorian nationalism," said Don Mello, who serves as minister for infrastructure and sanitation in Gbabgo's government.

"We're always open to dialogue, but within strict respect of the laws and regulations of the Republic of Ivory Coast," he said. Gbagbo's camp regards him as the lawful and duly-elected president on the country.

Gbagbo's spokesman said he did "not believe at all" that it would come to a fight, in particular because there are millions of West African immigrants who work in Ivory Coast's relatively prosperous cocoa-led economy.

"Ivory Coast is a country of immigration," he said. "All these countries have citizens in Ivory Coast, and they know if they attack Ivory Coast from the exterior it would become an interior civil war," he warned.

"Is Burkina Faso ready to welcome three million Burkinabe migrants back in their country of origin?" he demanded, in what some observers saw as a tacit threat that immigrant workers could be targeted in reprisal.

Despite a decade of crisis, Ivory Coast remains a significant economy. It exports more than a third of the world's supply of cocoa, has a small but promising oil production sector and operates two major ports.

Millions of immigrants from poorer West African countries have come looking for jobs, and in previous crises such as the riots of 2004 they have found themselves targeted for attack by mobs of Ivorian "patriot" youths.

Gbagbo has brushed off sanctions on its members by the United States and the European Union, but the tough stance taken by its neighbours has touched a raw nerve, and undermined his claim to be fighting Western colonialism.

On Friday, ECOWAS members said if Gbagbo does not go "the community will be left with no alternative but to take other measures, including the use of legitimate force, to achieve the goals of the Ivorian people."

This followed an earlier vote by the finance ministers of the West African Monetary Union single-currency bloc to block the regime's access to Ivory Coast's accounts in the Central Banks of West African States.

Meanwhile, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees said Saturday 14,000 Ivorians have fled to neighbouring Liberia amid the post-election violence.

"With their numbers growing, the humanitarian needs are increasing for the mostly women and children refugees as well as for the villagers hosting them," UNHCR said, appealing for aid.

"UNHCR has already provisionally pre-positioned supplies to assist up to   30,000 refugees in the region," it added.

Gbagbo's forces remain firmly in charge in Abidjan, where they have been accused of carrying out scores of killings in pro-Ouattara areas.

Ouattara's shadow government is under siege in an Abidjan resort, protected by 800 UN peacekeepers, but unable to move beyond the grounds of the Golf Hotel nor take charge of the levers of state power.

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