ABIDJAN (Reuters) - Confusion surrounded U.N. charges on Monday that Belarus had broken an arms embargo against Ivory Coast by delivering attack helicopters to Laurent Gbagbo, the leader who has refused to step down after a disputed election.
Gbagbo’s government denied the report as a “lie” and U.N. diplomats said the allegation had not been confirmed.
A U.N. spokesman indicated that the accusation by Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon 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.”
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 the world’s top cocoa grower back into full-blown civil war.
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.
November’s election was meant to heal divisions sown by a 2002-3 civil war that left the country divided into a rebel-run north and government-run south, but has only worsened divisions.
The U.N. said the number of Ivorian refugees in Liberia had reached 68,000, with another 40,000 internally displaced.
Cocoa futures rose to a 32-year peak on Monday as fears of civil war increased..
“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,” the spokesman for U.N. chief Ban said in a statement issued overnight.
“This is a serious violation of the embargo against Ivory Coast which has been in place since 2004,” he added.
But 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.
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.
Residents of Adjame, outside Abidjan’s business district, reported gunfire early on Monday, though it later died down.
Clashes in the west have taken a heavy toll, with thousands fleeing into Liberia, itself still vulnerable.
“At the end of last week there was a huge increase ... more than 20,000 over a few days” Ellen Margrethe Loj, U.N. mission chief in Liberia, told Reuters.
The European Union has banned its ships from docking at Ivorian ports and exporters have largely followed a call by Ouattara for a temporary embargo on cocoa supplies.
Stocks of unexported cocoa at ports in top grower Ivory Coast reached 433,296 tonnes by February 7, owing to EU sanctions and a ban on exporting in place since Jan 24.
Other sanctions have paralyzed the country’s banking sector, prompting analysts to forecast a shrinking economy for months.
Major powers and most African neighbors have recognized Ouattara as president but Gbagbo has refused to step down.
An African Union mission of five presidents aiming to find a negotiated settlement called for both sides to show “restraint” — and gave itself an extra month to reach deal, in a statement released on Monday evening. With violence increasing, few hold out any hope that talks will be successful.
Additional reporting by Loucoumane Coulibaly and Ange Aboa in Abidjan, David Lewis in Dakar, Olzhas Auyezov in Kiev and Louis Charbonneau at the United Nations; editing by Mark Trevelyan