Russian objection hits U.N. council Ivory Coast talks

UNITED NATIONS Fri Dec 3, 2010 11:13pm EST

UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon backed opposition candidate Alassane Ouattara on Friday as the victor in Ivory Coast's presidential election, but Russia blocked the Security Council from doing likewise, envoys said.

"Russia is causing problems," a Western diplomat told Reuters on condition of anonymity. "It's no longer clear that the council will be able to agree on a statement. The Russians don't want to say Ouattara, or anyone else, won the election."

President Laurent Gbagbo has disputed the Independent Electoral Commission's provisional results, which were overturned by the Constitutional Council. U.S. President Barack Obama led calls on Friday for Gbagbo to accept defeat.

Gbagbo, whose victory was affirmed by the army, is due to be sworn in as president on Saturday, raising fears of a potentially violent power struggle. The election commission said Ouattara won the November 28 poll with 54.1 percent of the vote but the Constitutional Council, the highest legal authority, scrapped hundreds of thousands of votes on Friday citing alleged intimidation and vote-rigging to hand the victory to Gbagbo.

Diplomats said Western council members would continue trying to persuade the Russian delegation to change its position in the coming days and might meet over the weekend if the crisis in Ivory Coast worsens. Another diplomat said it was clear there would be no council statement issued on Friday.

Another diplomat said that both Russia and China had asked for more time to consider the issue, a sign that Beijing might be standing with Russia, as has often happened in the past.

In an unusually strong endorsement of Ouattara, the U.N. secretary-general, Ban, congratulated Ouattara as the winner and urged Gbagbo to "do his part for the good of the country and to cooperate in a smooth political transition in the country."

Ivory Coast is the world's top cocoa-producing nation.

Philippe Bolopion of Human Rights Watch welcomed the uncharacteristically swift move by Ban, who has been criticized in the past for timidity and taking ambiguous positions.

"Ban's swift and unequivocal reaction should make clear to Laurent Gbagbo that the international community will stand in the way of those tempted to incite or perpetrate violence," he said in a statement.

"The Security Council should also put Gbagbo on notice that he will be held personally accountable if he allows the kind of gross abuses that have characterized past crack-downs of his security forces against political opponents," Bolopion added.

CAUTIOUS OPTIMISM

Several Security Council diplomats and U.N. officials told Reuters on condition of anonymity that the 15-nation council had planned to issue statements echoing the declarations of Ban and his special envoy in Ivory Coast, Young-jin Choi.

Choi told reporters in Ivory Coast earlier on Friday that Ouattara won the election.

Choi's mandate as Ban's special envoy to Ivory Coast gives him the authority to certify elections.

Diplomats said a meeting of envoys from the five permanent Security Council members -- Britain, France, China, Russia and the United States -- ended with an agreement in principle on a council statement echoing what Ban and Choi had said.

France then drafted a statement and sent it to the other 14 council members. Russia objected, insisting the council should not say who won the election, diplomats said.

The envoys expressed frustration over the possible failure of the council to echo Ban and Choi, who would benefit from having the weight of the Security Council behind them. Without the council's backing, it could send a green light to Gbagbo to ignore the position of the U.N on the election, envoys said.

But several envoys said the council would not give up and expressed cautious optimism that both China and Russia would back a statement. "Sometimes council statements happen a little more slowly than we'd like, but we'll keep trying," an envoy said.

Council statements need anonymous approval, which means each council member has a virtual veto.

Ivory Coast has threatened to expel Choi for endorsing Ouattara, one of Gbagbo's advisers said.

The hotly contested run-off was supposed to cap the protracted process of reunifying a country that was once West Africa's brightest economic prospect but has been split in two since rebels seized the north after a failed coup attempt in 2002.

(Additional reporting by Tim Cocks and Loucoumane Coulibaly in Abidjan; Editing by Peter Cooney and Eric Walsh)

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