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U.N. advisers fear Ivory Coast ethnic strife

UNITED NATIONS/ABIDJAN (Reuters) - U.N. advisers expressed grave fears on Thursday about ethnic violence in Ivory Coast after its disputed presidential election and Abidjan’s new ambassador to the United Nations warned that the West African nation was on the “brink of genocide.”

Ivory Coast's Ambassador to the U.N. Youssoufou Bamba (R) presents his credentials to U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon at the U.N. headquarters in New York December 29, 2010. REUTERS/Evan Schneider/UN/Handout

The two advisers reported signs “some leaders there are inciting violence between different elements of the population” during a standoff between incumbent President Laurent Gbagbo and challenger Alassane Ouattara after elections that were supposed to heal wounds of a civil war in 2002-03.

“Given the history of internal conflict in Cote d’Ivoire (Ivory Coast) such actions are highly irresponsible,” a U.N. statement quoted Francis Deng and Edward Luck as saying.

Deng said allegations the Abidjan homes of political opponents of Gbagbo had been marked to identify their ethnicity were extremely worrying.

The advisers cited unconfirmed reports “of serious human rights violations by supporters of Mr. Laurent Gbagbo and by forces under his control as well as the use of inflammatory speech to incite hatred and violence.”

World leaders have stepped up pressure on Gbagbo to quit in favor of Ouattara, who is widely recognized as having won the vote on November 28 in the world’s top cocoa growing nation.

Ouattara and his advisers are holed up in the Golf Hotel in Abidjan, protected by U.N. peacekeepers known as UNOCI.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon was “deeply alarmed” by reports that a member of Gbagbo’s government has called for an assault on the hotel from January 1, his office said.

“Any attack on the Golf Hotel could provoke widespread violence that could reignite civil war,” the statement said, adding UNOCI was “authorized to use all necessary means” to protect itself, Ouattara’s group and civilians at the hotel.

“SOMETHING SHOULD BE DONE”

A delegation of three West African leaders will return to Ivory Coast next week to try to persuade Gbagbo, president since 2000, to cede power or risk facing “legitimate force.”

The dispute over the election results has provoked lethal street clashes and threatens to restart open conflict.

It has also pushed up cocoa futures to four-month highs on fears the turmoil could eventually disrupt exports. Ivory Coast’s Eurobond hit a record low last week on concern it would not meet a nearly $30 million bond payment due on December 31.

Deng, special adviser on the prevention of genocide, and Luck, who holds the same position on the “responsibility to protect,” did not directly refer to the possibility of genocide or identify any ethnic groups that might be under threat.

But Youssoufou Bamba, appointed as ambassador to the United Nations by Ouattara, voiced deep concerns.

“We are on the brink of genocide,” he told reporters in New York. “Something should be done.”

Bamba said more than 170 people had been killed in street protests, adding he aimed to meet all 15 members of the U.N. Security Council.

One Western diplomat told Reuters it may be an exaggeration to use the word genocide at the moment but said the potential for ethnic violence was “very real.”

The U.N. General Assembly last week recognized Ouattara as Ivory Coast’s legitimate president by unanimously deciding the list of diplomats he submitted to the world body be recognized

as the sole representatives of Ivory Coast.

But the incumbent president shows no signs of giving in after the election results were overturned by the country’s top court, run by a Gbagbo ally, over allegations of fraud.

Gbagbo has accused former colonial power France of orchestrating an international plot alongside the United States to remove him from power. The French government dismissed the allegations as groundless.

The ambassador described Ouattara as the rightful leader.

“He has been elected in a free, fair, transparent, democratic election,” Bamba said. “We expect the United Nations to be credible and the United Nations to prevent violation and to prevent the election to be stolen from the people.”

THREAT OF FORCE

Some 16,000 Ivorians have fled the country for Liberia and the U.N. is preparing for the number nearly to double. But business and traffic in Abidjan were near normal on Thursday.

West African regional bloc ECOWAS has threatened to use force to oust Gbagbo if he does not leave quietly. Rebels still running the north of Ivory Coast after the civil war have said they would join any intervention.

“We will fight alongside the ECOWAS force to remove Laurent Gbagbo from power,” spokesman Affousy Bamba said by telephone. “We are awaiting ECOWAS’ decision.”

Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan, chairman of ECOWAS, said the next move would be decided after next week’s talks and added that he hoped for a peaceful outcome.

A military official told reporters in Abuja that ECOWAS defense chiefs were meeting in Nigeria’s defense headquarters to map out strategies should Gbagbo refuse to cede power.

The United States and European Union have slapped sanctions on Gbagbo and his inner circle, while the World Bank and the West African regional central bank have cut his financing in an attempt to weaken his grip on power.

Reporting by Ange Aboa in Abidjan, Felix Onuah in Abuja and Lou Charbonneau at the United Nations; Writing by Giles Elgood; Editing by David Stamp and John O’Callaghan

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