ABIDJAN – Ivory Coast strongman Laurent Gbagbo warned West African leaders Sunday that any attempt to oust him by force could ruin the regional economy and trigger a bloody 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 regional military intervention.
Gbagbo said he took the threat “seriously” but would never back down, and his lieutenants warned that any intervention could put the millions of West African migrants living in Ivory Coast in danger.
“If there is internal disorder, a civil war, there will be dangers, because we will not let our law, our constitution, be trampled on. People should get that idea out of their heads,” Gbagbo told the French daily Le Figaro.
“We're not afraid. We are the ones who are attacked. We have the law on our side. How far are those attacking us prepared to go?” he demanded.
Both Gbagbo and his long-time rival Alassane Ouattara claim to have won last month's presidential election, but only the latter has been recognised as the president by UN vote monitors and world powers.
Several international leaders, including UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, have warned Gbagbo's stubbornness could plunge Ivory Coast back into civil war.
But Gbagbo's supporters turned the warning around, claiming instead that the threat of military action by the West African bloc ECOWAS poses a greater risk of mass civilian casualties and a regional conflagration.
Gbagbo said the West African move was the result of a Western plot directed by France and the United States, whose ambassadors he accuses of undermining Ivorian electoral procedures in order to propel Ouattara into power.
“When you go through what I've been through, you tell yourself: 'Perhaps Mugabe wasn't completely wrong after all',” he said, referring to Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe, who clung to power after losing elections.
The strongman's spokesman Ahouda Don Mello had earlier made what some saw as a tacit threat against West Africans living in Ivory Coast.
“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,” Don Mello warned, when asked about the ECOWAS threat.
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.
The African Union has also called on Gbagbo to go, leaving him almost totally isolated, with only Angola publicly backing its ally.
Meanwhile, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees said Saturday that 14,000 Ivorians have fled to neighbouring Liberia amid the post-election violence.
On Sunday, both camps accused the other of forcing the refugees, who come from a divided are in the west of the country, to flee.
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.
France, meanwhile, struck another blow for Ouattara's camp, seizing control of Gbagbo's official plane at an airport on the Swiss border on behalf of what Paris calls the “legitimate authorities” of the Ivory Coast.
– AFP /ls
Channel News Asia