ABIDJAN, Ivory Coast — West African leaders are giving the man who refuses to leave Ivory Coast’s presidency a final chance to hand over power and are threatening to remove him by force if needed, though doubts exist about whether the operation could be carried out.
Meanwhile, the U.N. refugee agency said at least 14,000 people have fled the violence and political chaos in Ivory Coast, some walking for up to four days with little food to reach neighboring Liberia. At least one child drowned while trying to cross a river.
The U.N. has said at least 173 people have died in violence over the disputed presidential runoff election held nearly one month ago, heightening fears the country could return to civil war. The toll is believed to be much higher, though, as the U.N. mission has been blocked from investigating other reports including an allegation of a mass grave.
West African leaders from the regional bloc ECOWAS late Friday threatened a military intervention if Laurent Gbagbo does not step down from Ivory Coast’s presidency. On Sunday, Sierra Leone’s information ministry said that three leaders from the region would pay him a visit.
“In the spirit of brotherliness in Africa, three presidents have been nominated by their colleagues to confront Mr. Gbagbo in Abidjan to encourage him to leave office without delay,” the ministry said. “The three presidents can fly back with Mr. Gbagbo, as all ECOWAS countries are prepared to grant him asylum.”
Gbagbo has shown few signs that he plans to go, though, and his security forces have been accused of being behind hundreds of arrests, and dozens of cases of disappearance and torture in recent weeks. A Gbagbo adviser has said he does not believe their supporters are behind the attacks.
ECOWAS has not stated a deadline for Gbagbo to hand over power to Alassane Ouattara, whose victory has been acknowledged by the U.N., U.S., the African Union and the European Union.
While the threat of a military intervention creates pressure on Gbagbo, Africa security analyst Peter Pham said there are “serious doubts that ECOWAS has the wherewithal to carry it out.”
“None of the ECOWAS countries has the type of special operations forces capable of a ‘decapitation strike’ to remove the regime leadership,” said Pham, who is the senior vice president of the National Committee on American Foreign Policy in New York. “That leaves the rather unpalatable option of mounting a full-scale invasion of the sort that would inevitably involve urban fighting and civilian casualties.”
Pham also said there is “little chance” that the U.N. would allow its peacekeepers to get involved in such an effort. “The precedent would make it very difficult to get future agreement for deployment of such missions by host countries,” he said.
Diplomatic pressure and sanctions have left Gbagbo increasingly isolated, though he has been able to maintain his rule for nearly a month since the disputed vote because he still has the loyalty of security forces and the country’s military.
Even that, though, may disappear if he runs out of money to pay them. Gbagbo’s access to the state funds used to pay soldiers and civil servants has been cut off and only Ouattara’s representatives now have access to the state coffers.
Senior diplomatic sources, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue, say that Gbagbo only has enough reserves to run the country for three months.
Gbagbo’s spokesman Ahoua Don Mello on Saturday denounced the decision by West Africa’s economic and monetary union to give Ouattara’s government signing privileges on state accounts. He called the move “illegal and manifestly beyond their competence.”
The meeting of regional finance ministers that issued the freeze “overstepped its stated prerogatives by interfering in the internal affairs of a member state of the union,” Mello said.
Gbagbo’s government has denied rumors that state salaries wouldn’t be paid, and in spite of the financial freeze, civil servants received their paychecks the day before Christmas Eve.
While Ouattara now has access to government funds, he is struggling to assert his legitimacy despite widespread international support. Troops loyal to his political rival continue to encircle the hotel where he has taken refuge under the protection of some 800 U.N. peacekeepers since the election.
“After these long years of crisis, the Ivorian people deserved to rejoice in our democratic advancement,” Ouattara said in a Christmas Eve address. “But former president Laurent Gbagbo has decided to turn a new page of violence and uncertainty, aggravating every day a little more the suffering of Ivorians.”
In recent days, the United Nations has expressed alarm about the actions of men who are believed to be Gbagbo loyalists. The world body reported Thursday that heavily armed forces allied with Gbagbo, who were joined by masked men with rocket launchers, were preventing people from getting to the village of N’Dotre, where the global body said “allegations point to the existence of a mass grave.”
On Sunday, French authorities said Gbagbo’s plane had been blocked from leaving an airport. French Foreign Ministry spokesman Bernard Valero says the plane was “demobilized” in the Basel-Mulhouse-Freiburg airport at the request of Ivory Coast’s “legitimate authorities.” It is unclear why Gbagbo’s plane was at the airport, which is jointly operated by France and Switzerland.
Ivory Coast was once an economic hub because of its role as the world’s top cocoa producer. A 2002-2003 civil war split the country into a rebel-controlled north and a loyalist south. While the country officially reunited in a 2007 peace deal, Ouattara draws his support from the northern half of the country, where he was born, while Gbagbo’s power base is in the south.