ABIDJAN (Reuters) - France joined the United Nations on Sunday in rejecting a demand by Laurent Gbagbo to quit Ivory Coast and stepped up calls for him to stand down as president after a disputed poll or face sanctions.
The world’s top cocoa grower is locked in a dispute over a November 28 presidential vote that both Gbagbo and rival Alassane Ouattara say they won. Ouattara’s claim is backed by numerous foreign governments and the U.N. Security Council.
Gbagbo’s government on Saturday issued a demand for the United Nations and France to withdraw their forces from the country, but the world body made clear its 10,000 troops would remain and Paris said its 900-plus forces would stay too.
“That would make no sense at all either for UNOCI (UN force) or France,” Foreign Minister Michele Alliot-Marie said in an interview with French media TV5, RFI and Le Monde.
“If they are directly attacked ... there is the right of legitimate defense,” she said, while stressing there were no plans to become directly involved in fighting between pro-Gbagbo and pro-Ouattara forces which last week waged gun battles.
Alliot-Marie reaffirmed that Gbagbo would face international sanctions if he did not step down. French President Nicholas Sarkozy has said EU measures such as travel bans and asset freezes on him and his entourage could be launched within days.
Gbagbo controls the army and key state institutions and his camp has rejected calls for him to quit as outside meddling.
His newly-named youth minister, Charles Ble Goude, told a rally of the fervently pro-Gbagbo Young Patriots movement that the sovereignty of the West African nation was at stake.
“Be ready for the battle. When you go home, tell your brother, your sister, your husband, that they should prepare to liberate their country,” he told the rally in an Abidjan suburb close to the French military base.
Election commission results showed Ouattara won by nearly 8 percentage points. But Gbagbo claimed victory and is backed by the pro-Gbagbo Constitutional Council, which erased nearly half a million votes in Ouattara strongholds, alleging fraud.
The United Nations, France, the United States, the European Union, the African Union and West African regional bloc ECOWAS have urged Gbagbo to admit defeat and accept an offer of exile.
“That is unimaginable,” Gbagbo aide Pascal Affi N’Guessan told Reuters in an interview. “Everyone involved in this crisis needs to exclude this hypothesis of Gbagbo leaving.”
Ouattara says he will only agree to examine compromise solutions if Gbagbo first accepts to step down. Officials in Ouattara’s camp were not available for comment on Sunday.
The U.N. human rights chief Navi Pillay said there was evidence of “massive” violations by Ivorian security forces and estimated that more than 50 people had been killed in the past few days. Ouattara’s camp and local rights groups say death squads have been hunting down his supporters and killing them.
“When people are victims of extrajudicial killings there must be an investigation,” Pillay said. People had been abducted and later “found dead in questionable circumstances,” she said.
Gbagbo’s government has denied using excessive force to put down protests on Thursday called by Ouattara allies in a failed attempt to seize the state broadcaster building.
Over 4,000 people have already crossed over into Liberia and some 200 into Guinea since last month’s election, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has said, adding that it was making contingency plans for a possible greater exodus.
Guinea’s President-elect Alpha Conde called on the national army to step up monitoring of their 500-km (300-mile) border.
“We must welcome our brothers but we should also make sure that no refugee enters Guinea with a weapon,” he told state TV.