The United States said Wednesday it is talking with regional African countries about boosting UN troops in the Ivory Coast as part of efforts to force strongman Laurent Gbagbo to leave office.
On Wednesday, the UN recognized the ambassador of Alassane Ouattara in a further boost to the internationally recognized victor of Ivory Coast’s disputed presidential poll, diplomats said.
US officials said any move to increase the 10,000-strong UNOCI peacekeeping force would not be aimed at deposing Gbagbo but at deterring him from using his own forces to stay in power.
The United States and the European Union have already imposed travel restrictions on Gbagbo, his family and top aides to force them to hand power to rival Alassane Ouattara following disputed November 28 elections.
The US, EU, and the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) have all recognized Ouattara as the winner of the elections and called on Gbagbo to step down immediately. ECOWAS also suspended Ivory Coast as a member.
“We are in discussions with other regional countries to see if there are ways in which we can reinforce the UN peacekeeping force,” State Department spokesman Philip Crowley told reporters.
“We’re talking to a number of countries within ECOWAS,” he said without elaborating.
Crowley said the talks were taking place at United Nations headquarters in New York and at ECOWAS headquarters in Abuja, Nigeria.
“Other countries like France are in position to play a supporting role, as well,” he said.
France, the former colonial power, is “in a position to help determine what can be done to make sure that there are adequate forces in Cote D’Ivoire to maintain peace and security,” he said.
Conflict ‘not ruled out’
Given that Gbagbo has already ordered UN troops to leave, “we can’t rule out that at some point in time he may challenge the presence of that force through force of his own,” Crowley said.
“We want to make sure that the UN has the capability to maintain peace and stability in Cote d’Ivoire (Ivory Coast) while this is being worked through,” he said.
The news came as Ouattara supporters urged world powers Wednesday to use military force to oust the defiant Gbagbo.
Ouattara’s camp insisted force was the only way to dislodge Gbagbo, after the head of the World Bank said that both he and Ivory Coast’s West African neighbors had halted loans to the regime.
“We certainly would hope that the use of force would not be necessary,” Crowley said when asked for comment.
“That said, we believe that the United Nations force in Cote D’Ivoire has had a great stabilizing effect. And we have talked to countries about how to perhaps reinforce the UN force there to make clear to President Gbagbo that he has to step down,” he said.
A senior State Department official told reporters on the condition of anonymity the aim of boosting the UN force was not to depose Gbagbo but to deter Gbagbo from using force.
“We have great concern that this (crisis) might spiral into a significant conflict,” the official said.
Despite Gbagbo’s order for UN troops to leave, the UN Security Council voted Monday to renew the force’s mandate for six months after hearing reports that Gbagbo’s forces have been involved in “massive” human rights abuses.
Gbagbo’s interior minister, Emile Guirieoulou, dismissed charges of rights abuses Monday, telling reporters: “We demand UNOCI leaves. The rest is just a diversion. It shouldn’t act against our will on our territory.”