ABIDJAN, Ivory Coast: The United Nations said it will do everything it can to locate areas where human rights abuses have allegedly occurred in Ivory Coast following disputed presidential elections.
Human rights groups have warned that security forces loyal to incumbent Laurent Gbagbo, who refuses to cede power, have been abducting political opponents in recent weeks.
The UN also believes up to 80 bodies may have been moved to a building nestled among shacks in a pro-Gbagbo neighbourhood.
Investigators have tried to go there several times, and even made it as far as the buildingâ€™s front door before truckloads of men with guns showed up and forced them to leave. A second mass burial site is believed to be located near Gagnoa in the interior of the country, the UN said.
Gbagboâ€™s government has repeatedly denied the existence of mass graves.
The UN has said the volatile West African nation once divided in two faces a real risk of return to civil war, but a top ally of Alassane Ouattara, the man widely recognized as Ivory Coastâ€™s president, said this war has already begun.
â€œIn any country that records more than 200 dead in five days, as the UN has certified, itâ€™s war. When a country experiences a massive population flight of the population â€” more than 20,000 Ivorians who leave their country to seek refuge in a country like Liberia â€” itâ€™s war,â€ Ouattaraâ€™s Prime Minister, Guillaume Soro, told The Associated Press.
The UN has confirmed at least 173 deaths.
In New York on Saturday, the United Nations said Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon spoke with Ouattara by telephone and assured him that the international community was working to try to end the stalemate in Ivory Coast.
Ban said he appreciated â€œthe restraint and patience being shown even in the face of provocative actsâ€ and reaffirmed the United Nationsâ€™ â€œprincipled and unwavering position on upholding the election outcomeâ€ that should have put Ouattara in office.
The secretary-general also expressed alarm about reports of egregious human rights violations, and said the UN
mission in Ivory Coast is doing everything it can to gain access to areas where such violations are being reported â€” both to document any abuses and prevent others from occurring. Ban also took note of Ouattaraâ€™s call for International Criminal Court investigation of alleged rights violations.
Human rights groups accuse incumbent Gbagboâ€™s security forces of abducting and killing political opponents, though Gbagbo allies deny the allegations and say some of the victims were security forces killed by protesters.
Gbagbo gave an address late Friday on state television in which he accused the international community of mounting a coup dâ€™etat to oust him and said Ivorians were being subjected to international hostility.
â€œNo one has the right to call on foreign armies to invade his country,â€ Gbagbo said. â€œOur greatest duty to our country is to defend it from foreign attack.â€ Soro said Saturday that Gbagbo would only leave power by force and that the international community will have to intervene with â€œlegitimate forceâ€ to protect democracy in Africa. He dismissed Gbagboâ€™s offer to invite an international investigation into the country as a delay tactic.
Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan, who also holds the rotating presidency of ECOWAS, the Economic Community of West African States, is due in Abidjan on Monday to negotiate Gbagboâ€™s departure. ECOWAS threatened to use military force to remove Gbagbo if he doesnâ€™t leave freely, but failed to persuade him to go into exile when its first delegation came to Ivory Coast on Monday.
Jonathan will be joined by African Union emissary Raila Odinga, the Kenyan prime minister who was widely believed to have won the presidential election in his country in 2007, but in the end settled for a power-sharing deal with incumbent President Mwai Kibaki.
The African Union said in a statement Sunday that Odinga is joining the West African leaders, â€œto strengthen the political efforts being made to find an immediate peaceful solution to the Ivorian crisis.â€ The statement from Odingaâ€™s office said the Kenyan premier will also seek measures to protect the human rights of civilians in Ivory Coast and â€œan assurance of safety and security for Mr. Laurent Gbagbo and his supporters, if he agrees to cede power.â€ Odinga was chosen by the African Union to help in mediation efforts because he is not from the region and may be seen as more impartial than West African leaders.
The United Nations had been invited by all parties to certify the results of the Nov. 28 presidential runoff vote. The UN declared Ouattara the winner, endorsing the announcement by the countryâ€™s electoral commission. But Gbagbo has refused to step aside now for more than a month, defying international condemnation and growing calls for his ouster.
The European Union said late Friday that it had approved sanctions on 59 more people, in addition to 19 already sanctioned last week including Gbagbo and his wife. Gbagbo and about 30 of his allies also face US travel sanctions, though such measures have typically failed to reverse illegal power grabs in Africa in the past.
West African leaders have said they are prepared to use military force to push Gbagbo out, but are giving negotiations more time for now. For many, the credibility of the international community is at stake if it is unable to ensure that Ouattara takes power.
Gbagbo points to Ivory Coastâ€™s constitutional council, which declared him president after throwing out more than half a million votes from Ouattara strongholds. The council invalidated election results in those areas, citing violence and intimidation directed at Gbagbo supporters.
The top UN envoy in Ivory Coast has disputed that assessment.
Ivory Coast was divided into a rebel-controlled north and a loyalist south by a 2002-2003 civil war, and the long-delayed presidential election was intended to help reunify the nation. However, tensions over the outcome have sparked violence including several attacks on UN
Ivory Coast, the worldâ€™s top cocoa producer, was officially reunited in a 2007 peace deal. However, Ouattara still draws his support from the northern half of the country, where residents feel they are often treated as foreigners within their own country by southerners.
Col. Mohammed Yerima, director of defense information for the Nigerian military, said that defense chiefs from the 15-nation regional bloc ECOWAS met Friday to begin strategizing what sort of assault theyâ€™d use if those talks fail. But his comments appeared to suggest no such attack was imminent, as he said the plans would only be presented to ECOWAS leaders in Mali in mid-January.