ABIDJAN (Reuters) - Ivory Coast’s presidential claimant said on Thursday he had asked for EU sanctions to be lifted as a first step to bring the country back to normal, despite a continuing standoff with incumbent Laurent Gbagbo.
The address by U.N.-backed Alassane Ouattara, whose forces have been waging an offensive in Abidjan to dislodge Gbagbo from the presidential residence, was a sign he was taking steps toward assuming executive powers.
Ouattara announced several measures, including providing security, basic necessities and utilities, resuming economic activities and paying salaries to return Ivory Coast to normal after five months of conflict that has killed thousands.
“I have asked that European Union sanctions on the ports of Abidjan and San Pedro and certain public entities, be lifted,” he said in a speech broadcast on French television channel LCI.
“I have also asked the central bank BCEAO to reopen its branches in Ivory Coast, to ensure a resumption of operations in all banks so as to enable the payment of salaries and arrears in the shortest possible time,” Ouattara said.
Gbagbo, who has refused to recognize Ouattara’s victory in November’s election according to results certified by the United Nations, said on Wednesday he had no plan to step down.
Diplomatic and military efforts to oust him this week have been met with fierce resistance and Ouattara said his residence had been sealed off to protect the area.
“As for the outgoing President Mr. Laurent Gbagbo, who has entrenched himself at the presidential residence in Cocody with heavy weapons and mercenaries, a blockade has been established around the perimeter to secure the inhabitants of the district,” Ouattara said.
U.N. peacekeepers have surrounded Gbagbo’s “last defenders,” France said on Thursday, after a week of heavy fighting to unseat him. French Defense Minister Gerard Longuet said Gbagbo had about 1,000 men, 200 of whom were in the residence.
A U.N. spokesman in Abidjan told Reuters the United Nations had forces on standby in the upscale Cocody neighborhood.
“We have sent a patrol to Cocody and the surrounding area, but it is not to intervene,” U.N. spokesman Hamadoun Toure told Reuters by telephone. “I am not aware that Ouattara has requested our intervention at this stage.”
A week after Ouattara’s soldiers arrived in Abidjan, gunfire could be heard on Thursday coming from Gbagbo’s presidential palace in the Plateau district and also in the Cocody neighborhood where his residence is located.
“Right now there is shooting every 30 minutes,” a Cocody resident, who gave his name as Jean-Claude, said by phone.
There was no sign of a major assault by Ouattara’s forces, repelled on Wednesday by Gbagbo’s feared Republican Guard and youth militias armed with heavy weapons, after talks led by the United Nations and France to secure Gbagbo’s departure failed.
Ouattara’s spokesman said then his forces had been given orders not to kill Gbagbo.
A week of fighting for control of the city has left terrified residents scrambling to find food and water, with frequent power cuts and hospitals overwhelmed with wounded.
“Every morning people have to take jerrycans to walk around the neighborhood and search for water,” Cocody resident Jean-Claude said. “As for food, there is nothing left. People have to queue up in long lines to buy even a single baguette.”
Ouattara said he had asked generals to take all necessary steps to maintain order and security of goods, people and their movements and also secure the delivery of food to markets and medicines in hospitals and health centers.
He said steps would be taken to shed light on all crimes committed during the conflict and would collaborate with international organizations to investigate human rights abuses and punish those found guilty.
The International Criminal Court prosecutor said on Tuesday he was in talks with West African states about referring alleged atrocities in the Ivory Coast to the court after a reported massacre in the west of the country.
“We have established a national commission of inquiry whose findings will be made public and the perpetrators of crimes will be severely punished,” Ouattara said.
France has taken a leading role in talks to persuade Gbagbo to hand over to Ouattara and end the standoff.
Helicopters from French forces and the United Nations peacekeeping mission bombarded Gbagbo’s heavy weapons stockpiles earlier this week, including those near his residence.
Political analysts said Ouattara forces, who swept south last week in a lightly contested march toward Abidjan, could struggle to defeat Gbagbo’s remaining presidential guard and militias unless they are backed by French and U.N. forces.
Gbagbo has ruled Ivory Coast since 2000 and blames Paris for supporting the north of the country in the civil war of 2002-03. Rebels from that war now make up the bulk of Ouattara’s force.
Last year’s long-delayed election was meant to draw a line under the civil war, but Gbagbo’s refusal to give up power has plunged the country into violence that has led to more than 1,500 deaths.
Additional reporting by Loucoumane Coulibali in Abidjan, Louis Charbonneau at the United Nations, John Irish in Paris, Bate Felix and George Fominyen in Dakar; writing by Silvia Aloisi and Richard Valdmanis; editing by Philippa Fletcher