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U.N. Fears Escalating Ethnic Clashes in Cote d’Ivoire

Andrea Lunt

UNITED NATIONS, Jan 20 2011 (IPS) - United Nations officials said they were “gravely concerned” Wednesday that the current political deadlock over recent presidential elections in Cote d’Ivoire could ultimately lead to genocide, as both sides of the conflict consolidated their forces.

Addressing reporters at the U.N. headquarters in New York, the Secretary-General’s Special Advisors on the Prevention of Genocide and the Responsibility to Protect said “urgent action” was needed to prevent further loss of life, and failure to do so could push the West African nation to the “brink of destruction”.

“We are disturbed by allegations that the armed forces and militia groups that back opposing camps in the current political crisis are recruiting and arming ethnic groups allied to each camp,” advisors Francis Deng and Edward Luck said in a joint statement.

“We are also deeply troubled by reports of continuing hate speech that appears to be aimed at inciting violent attacks against particular ethnic and national groups,” they said.

“We urge all parties in Cote d’Ivoire to refrain from inflammatory speech that incites hatred and violence. Those responsible for committing atrocities or their incitement will be held accountable.”

Cote d’Ivoire descended into violence late last year following the Oct. 31 elections that saw long-term president Laurent Gbagbo voted out in favour of Alassane Ouattara.

Gbagbo, who continues to control the nation’s 60,000-strong armed forces, has refused to step down, despite the U.N., African Union, Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and the European Union recognising Ouattara as the legitimate winner.

In the ensuing post-electoral violence, the president-elect has set up camp in Abidjan’s Golf Hotel, which is being subjected to a blockade by Gbagbo.

More than 247 people have reportedly been killed in the fighting between the opposing parties, causing 23,500 Ivorians to flee to neighbouring countries.

A further 16,000 people have been internally displaced, as serious human rights violations on both sides continue to take place.

Addressing concerns about the potential for genocide, the U.N.’s Special Representative for Cote d’Ivoire, Choi Young- jin, told reporters Tuesday the recent clashes had been both ethnically and politically driven.

However, he pointed out there had been equal levels of violence from both parties in the conflict.

“This is not a one-sided ethnic harassment or cleansing,” Choi said.

In an effort to end the stalemate, sanctions against Gbagbo have already been put in place and ECOWAS is currently discussing the option of military intervention to compel the leader to relinquish power.

Choi also noted that another option for ending the crisis would be action by the West African Economic and Monetary Union, which controlled the Ivorian currency and was putting pressure on Gbagbo’s finances.

In a show of determination from the international community, the Security Council Wednesday authorised the deployment of an additional 2,000 peacekeepers to Cote d’Ivoire, boosting the mission to 11,000 troops.

Late last month, U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay also raised the political stakes against Gbagbo and his military leaders, suggesting the group could face the International Criminal Court (ICC) for the deaths of more than 200 people, mostly civilians, in the aftermath of the elections.

At the briefing Wednesday, special advisor Luck told IPS it was still unclear whether the ICC would pursue charges against the beleaguered president, with investigations into the deaths continuing.

“Obviously information derived from those investigations could be very helpful in deciding whether in fact… crimes against humanity or war crimes have been committed there, but I think it would be rather early to speculate on whether that would be the case,” Luck said.

He said the international community remained hopeful the situation could be resolved peacefully.

“We fear that we’re on the brink of something that could be very destructive but we’re not there yet…there is still time for parties to show constraint. We’ve not crossed over the precipice yet but we’re fearful.”

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