U.N. keeps troops in Ivory Coast, defying Gbagbo

UNITED NATIONS/ABIDJAN Mon Dec 20, 2010 3:47pm EST

U.N. security forces are seen deployed around U.N. headquarters in Abidjan, December 20, 2010. Ivory Coast presidential claimant Alassane Ouattara urged the United Nations to toughen its peacekeeping mandate on Monday to help quell a violent power struggle that has already claimed over 50 lives. REUTERS/ Thierry Gouegnon

U.N. security forces are seen deployed around U.N. headquarters in Abidjan, December 20, 2010. Ivory Coast presidential claimant Alassane Ouattara urged the United Nations to toughen its peacekeeping mandate on Monday to help quell a violent power struggle that has already claimed over 50 lives.

Credit: Reuters/ Thierry Gouegnon

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UNITED NATIONS/ABIDJAN (Reuters) - World powers voted on Monday to keep U.N. forces in Ivory Coast, defying incumbent Laurent Gbagbo's demand they leave, and the U.N. peacekeeping chief said the troops would shoot back if fired on.

Gbagbo faces growing international pressure after European Union countries agreed to impose a travel ban on him and his entourage for failing to step down after a November 28 election the outside world says he lost.

The United States said it was also readying sanctions and repeated its call for Gbagbo to stand down. "It is time for him to go," White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said.

Rival claimant Alassane Ouattara is backed by the United Nations, African leaders, Washington and the European Union but Gbagbo still controls the army in a power struggle that has raised fears of civil war resuming in the world's top cocoa grower.

The U.N. Security Council unanimously adopted a resolution keeping its peacekeeping mission in place for six more months -- a normal extension period. The Council urged the mission "to support, in coordination with the Ivorian authorities, the provision of security for the government and key political stakeholders."

In a separate statement, it warned that anyone responsible for attacks on civilians or peacekeepers could be hauled before an international tribunal.

Noting violence that has already claimed over 50 lives since the contested election, the Council urged the force to fulfill a mandate to protect civilians. But it was not immediately clear that it represented the toughening of the mandate that Ouattara has called for.

Peacekeeping chief Alain Le Roy said the U.N. troops were ready to open fire in self-defense and to defend their mandate, which includes the protection of civilians.

"We have the right to open fire in the case of self-defense or in defense of the mandate," Le Roy told Reuters in a telephone interview. "There have already been some attacks on our peacekeepers, and we had to fire back."

Gbagbo's government repeated demands for the force, which first arrived in Ivory Coast in 2004, to leave.

"If, against our will, it wants to keep this force on our territory, we will not cooperate with it. That means the leader of that force will not have a formal interlocutor -- how are they going to work?" said Interior Minister Emile Guirieoulou.

SANCTIONS "MAKE US SMILE"

Hours earlier, EU countries agreed to impose a travel ban on Gbagbo, his wife and 17 of his close allies.

"We expect the ban to be adopted by Wednesday and come into effect on Thursday, effective immediately," European Commission spokeswoman Maja Kocijancic told reporters in Brussels, adding that governments were also discussing a freeze on assets.

The EU travel ban list is expected to include top security, ruling party and regular army officials as well as figures in the entourage of Gbagbo and his powerful wife Simone.

"I don't think this will advance things. It just shows that those behind them haven't got much room for maneuver," Gbagbo aide Pascal Affi N'Guessan said of the sanctions.

Guirieoulou said of the sanctions: "They make us smile."

Tensions in Ivory Coast have pushed cocoa futures to four-month highs in recent weeks on market fears of disruption to supplies. So far, beans have been getting through to port but there have been delays in registering them for export.

Intended to heal scars in a country ripped apart by a 2002-2003 civil war, the election has only accentuated the divide between the Gbagbo-held south and rebel-held north.

Ouattara's eight-point poll victory was overturned on grounds of alleged fraud by the Constitutional Council, a top legal body led by a staunch Gbagbo ally.

U.N. mission chief Y.J. Choi accused Gbagbo's camp of a media campaign inciting violence against U.N. staff and said "armed young men" had harassed some at their homes.

But he said the mission, known as UNOCI, would not be deterred. "We remember one of Winston Churchill's maxims: 'If you are going through hell, just keep going'," he said.

U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay cited on Sunday evidence of "massive" violations in Ivory Coast, saying over 50 people had been killed in the previous three days and hundreds abducted from their homes by armed men.

Outside the U.N. headquarters, Ouattara supporters said they had been attacked overnight and begged for medical care.

"Masked men attacked us last night," said Salif Kone, 57, a taxi driver who escaped a raid on his Abidjan neighborhood. "They fired tear gas and bullets. Many were wounded."

Gbagbo's government has denied using excessive force to put down protests last week and says some protesters were armed.

Around 5,000 Ivorians have already fled to neighboring countries such as Liberia and Guinea, and the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees has said it is making contingency plans for a possible greater exodus.

(Additional reporting by Brussels bureau, Alister Bull in Washington and Louis Charbonneau at the United Nations; Writing by Mark John and Patrick Worsnip; Editing by Philip Barbara)

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