ABIDJAN: Defiant Ivory Coast leader Laurent Gbagbo ordered UN and French peacekeepers out of the country on Saturday, accusing them of backing rebel fighters supporting his rival Alassane Ouattara.
The demand for their “immediate” departure reflects the growing anger of Gbagbo's nationalist supporters, and came as his most notorious lieutenant urged young Ivorians to make ready to fight for their sovereignty.
The United Nations, United States, European Union and Ivory Coast's west African neighbours all demanded that Gbagbo cede power to Ouattara after both men claimed to have won last month's presidential election.
But the veteran strongman retains control of the official armed forces and his backers have vowed to fight on, turning their anger on UN peacekeepers, former colonial power France and Ouattara's own Ivorian supporters.
“The president of the Republic of the Ivory Coast has just asked for the immediate departure from Ivorian territory of UNOCI and the French forces that support it,” Education Minister Jacqueline Lohoues-Oble said.
As tension mounted between the two camps, Gbagbo's supporters accused the United Nations' 10,000-strong UNOCI peacekeeping force and France's 900 troops in Ivory Coast of supporting pro-Ouattara rebel fighters.
The spokeswoman repeated these claims and accused the UN mission of broadcasting rebel propaganda on its radio station to destabilise the country.
There was no immediate reaction from the United Nations to the demand, but UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has previously defended UNOCI's work, called on Gbagbo to step down and vowed to protect Ouattara's government.
Guillaume Soro, Ouattara's choice for prime minister and the leader of the New Forces former rebel movement, dismissed Gbagbo's orders as having no authority.
“In any case, this decision can't be put into effect as Mr Gbagbo is no longer president, so we don't need to be concerned with it. We find this act of a beaten president entirely ridiculous…,” he told AFP.
France has said in recent days that its contingent, known as “Licorne”, could be used to ensure the safe departure of the 15,000 French civilians living in Ivory Coast if the situation turns dangerous.
The UNOCI mission deployed in 2004 to help end a civil war between Gbagbo's southern forces and northern rebels dubbed the New Forces. The rebels now back Ouattara and Gbagbo's order will increase fears of a new conflict.
“Play time is over,” declared Charles Ble Goude, Gbagbo's minister for youth, who has been under UN sanctions since 2006 for “acts of violence by street militias, including beatings, rapes and extrajudicial killings”.
“We are going to defend the sovereignty of our country until the last drop of our sweat. I urge all Ivorians to make themselves ready for this combat. We are going to totally liberate our country,” he told AFP.
Later, he gathered hundreds of supporters, chanting slogans against France and the United Nations, in the Yopougon district of Abidjan.
“Be ready! You can no longer sleep!” he told them, promising to tour the city over the coming week to stir up patriotic citizens so that, by Friday, “they liberate Ivory Coast totally, and so that we win respect.”
In a sign of the rising tension, six men in military uniform opened fire overnight on a UN patrol returning to the force's main base in Abidjan, ONUCI complained in a statement.
A UN sentry returned fire but there were no reports of anyone hurt in the clash, and the mission appealed for calm.
The New Forces said Gbagbo had no right to kick out the peacekeepers. At FN headquarters in Bouake, spokesman Felicien Sekongo said: “Gbagbo is not president and his orders do not engage the state or people of Ivory Coast.”
Separately, an FN military leader said northern forces were on “maximum alert” but were holding to their positions along the 2003 ceasefire line.
During a 2004 crisis, France temporarily reinforced Licorne to more than 5,000 troops in order to help evacuate more than 8,000 foreign civilians, and killed around 50 Ivorian protesters in clashes in Abidjan.
While Gbagbo retains control of ministries and the armed forces, Ouattara is holed up in an Abidjan hotel protected by 800 UN peacekeepers, and his leadership is endorsed by the former colonial power.
On Friday, France's President Nicolas Sarkozy called for Gbagbo to stand down, warning he and his powerful wife Simone face individual international sanctions, including an EU visa ban and asset freeze.
“If Sarkozy plans military intervention, he'd better be ready to kill a lot of Ivorians,” Ble Goude warned at his rally.
A council of Muslim imams appealed for calm after they said unidentified “men in uniform” launched grenade attacks on two mosques Friday in the Abidjan region, leaving one person dead and several wounded.
On Thursday, street clashes between pro-Gbagbo security forces and Ouattara supporters left between 11 and 30 people dead, and the Red Cross has treated almost 550 wounded since the start of the stand-off.
Channel News Asia