U.N. charge on Ivorian arms smuggling is denied

ABIDJAN Mon Feb 28, 2011 9:43pm EST

Belarussian army MI-24 military helicopters release flares at a firing range in Domanovo, some 200 km (124 miles) southwest of Minsk, October 21, 2008, in this file photo. The United Nations on February 28, 2011 accused Belarus of violating an arms embargo on Ivory Coast by delivering attack helicopters to the country for incumbent leader Laurent Gbagbo. REUTERS/Vasily Fedosenko

Belarussian army MI-24 military helicopters release flares at a firing range in Domanovo, some 200 km (124 miles) southwest of Minsk, October 21, 2008, in this file photo. The United Nations on February 28, 2011 accused Belarus of violating an arms embargo on Ivory Coast by delivering attack helicopters to the country for incumbent leader Laurent Gbagbo.

Credit: Reuters/Vasily Fedosenko

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ABIDJAN (Reuters) - The U.N. chief accused Belarus on Monday of breaking an arms embargo against Ivory Coast by sending attack helicopters to incumbent Ivorian leader Laurent Gbagbo, a charge denied by Minsk and Ggagbo's government.

Gbagbo's government dismissed as a "lie" the allegation contained in a statement issued by the spokesman for U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. Gbagbo has refused to resign as president of the West African nation, the world's top cocoa grower, after a disputed November 28 election.

Ban later softened the allegation in comments to reporters in Washington.

The U.N. Security Council's Ivory Coast sanctions committee met and found that the allegation against Belarus has not been confirmed, diplomats said.

A U.N. spokesman indicated the accusation was based on reports received by U.N.-appointed experts monitoring the embargo.

"We're trying to figure out if this allegation is credible," a Security Council diplomat told Reuters.

"There's a lot of confusion."

In New York, the U.N. Ivory Coast sanctions committee discussed the charge that Belarus had violated the embargo.

"It looks like the sanctions committee has not yet been able to positively confirm the reported arms shipment," a spokesman for the German mission said. "They requested UNOCI (the U.N. peacekeeping mission in Ivory Coast) and the panel of experts to continue monitoring the situation."

Other diplomats confirmed his account of the meeting.

The allegation follows a week of gun battles between forces loyal to Gbagbo and supporters of Alassane Ouattara, almost universally recognized as winner of the November 28 election.

The stand-off risks pushing Ivory Coast back into full-blown civil war. Cocoa futures rose to a 32-year peak on Monday as war fears increased.

Major powers and most African neighbors have recognized Ouattara as president but Gbagbo has refused to step down.

Gunfire erupted close to the center of Ivory Coast's commercial capital Abidjan on Monday after a week of fighting in which a northern suburb was seized by insurgents who briefly knocked out the state TV and army communications transmitter.

DIVISIONS WORSEN

November's election was meant to heal divisions sown by a 2002-2003 civil war that left the nation divided into a rebel-run north and government-run south, but has worsened divisions. The United Nations said the number of Ivorian refugees in Liberia has reached 68,000, with another 40,000 internally displaced.

The Belarussian foreign ministry denied violating any embargo, according to Russia's Interfax news agency. Gbagbo government spokesman Ahoua Don Mello said, "No arms have been received in Ivory Coast in violation of the embargo."

Ivory Coast has been under an arms embargo since the last bout of serious violence in 2004, when pro-Gbagbo forces bombed French peacekeepers in the rebel-held north.

A spokesman for Ban issued a statement overnight saying, "The secretary-general has learned with deep concern that three attack helicopters and related materiel from Belarus are reportedly being delivered at (Ivory Coast's capital) Yamoussoukro for Mr. Gbagbo's forces."

"This is a serious violation of the embargo against Ivory Coast which has been in place since 2004," he added.

Ban, speaking to reporters later after meeting U.S. President Barack Obama in Washington, indicated the accusation had not been confirmed. He said the group of experts had "credible information that the government of Belarus may be providing attack helicopters to forces loyal to Gbagbo."

"If it is confirmed, this will be a direct violation of (the) arms embargo by the Security Council," Ban said. "We are trying to confirm this."

U.N. Security Council and other diplomats said on condition of anonymity that neither the U.N. Department of Peacekeeping Operations nor the Group of Experts, which monitors sanctions violations, could confirm the allegation.

U.N. spokesman Martin Nesirky said the group of experts "reported that it had received information that these three attack helicopters and related equipment were being delivered."

"This Group of Experts and an officer from the U.N. mission's embargo cell traveled to the airport ... but was unable to verify ... indeed was forced to withdraw," he added.

Youths loyal to Gbagbo kidnapped two Ukrainian mechanics working for the U.N. mission on Monday morning but released them in the afternoon, a U.N. spokesman said. The abductions followed a call on Friday by a pro-Gbagbo youth group for roadblocks to prevent the movement of U.N. staff.

(Additional reporting by Loucoumane Coulibaly and Ange Aboa in Abidjan, David Lewis in Dakar, Olzhas Auyezov in Kiev, Louis Charbonneau at the United Nations and David Alexander in Washington; Editing by Mark Trevelyan and Will Dunham)

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