Civil war looms as foreigners are warned to leave Ivory Coast

Ivory Coast appeared to be sliding back into civil war yesterday as foreign nationals were warned to leave the country, while government-backed "death squads" were reported to be abducting opposition supporters.

The international community stepped up its financial blockade of the regime of Laurent Gbagbo, who has refused to concede defeat in last month's election, with the World Bank and regional leaders freezing loans. The EU and US have already slapped sanctions on Mr Gbagbo and, along with the African Union and regional ECOWAS bloc, have recognised his opponent, Alassane Ouattara, as the rightful President.

Mr Gbagbo accused the international community of "declaring war on Ivory Coast", as world leaders sought to break a recent run of African elections in which the losers have been allowed to negotiate a longer stay in power.

But the real war on the ground appeared to be targeting opposition supporters, after the UN confirmed that the regime was recruiting mercenaries from neighbouring Liberia and breaking an international arms embargo. Ominously, Guillaume Soro, who is likely to be appointed Prime Minister in any Ouattara administration, last night called on the international community to use military action to oust Mr Gbagbo. "It is obvious that there is one solution left – that of force," he told France's i-Télé digital TV channel.

The stand-off is being keenly watched across the continent ahead of a new year in which more African elections will be held than in any year since the era of independence. In a stark change from the cautious diplomacy that accompanied post-election crises in Zimbabwe and Kenya, there have been clear calls for the incumbent to step down. The UN has refused Mr Gbagbo's demands that UN peacekeepers withdraw from the country, while Secretary-General Ban ki-Moon warned that Ivory Coast may slip back into "civil war". He demanded that Mr Gbagbo's forces end a blockade on the opposition HQ, where they have encircled UN peacekeepers and refused to let them bring supplies in.

"Facing this direct and unacceptable challenge to the legitimacy of the United Nations, the world community cannot stand by," said Mr Ban. He also confirmed that "mercenaries, including freelance former combatants from Liberia, have been recruited to target certain groups in the population".

France's call for its 15,000 citizens to "temporarily leave" its former colony has stirred fears that the country may yet be abandoned. Such withdrawals of foreign nationals in the past have been the prelude to international disengagement and civilian massacres, mostly notably in Rwanda. In an atypically blunt statement, the World Bank said that along with regional lenders it was "sending the message to President Gbagbo that he has lost the election and needs to step down".

However, the unusually unanimous response to the crisis cannot disguise the reality that the international community has few options if Mr Gbagbo resists financial pressure to stand down. There is little chance of military action, as the government still controls the army and most state institutions.

By contrast the internationally recognised victor, Mr Ouattara, is holed up in a hotel complex guarded by 800 peacekeepers. He is trying to set up a parallel administration, but in the meantime has encouraged the targeted squeeze on his defeated opponent, appealing to the regional bank to block the incumbent's access to state finances, making it impossible to pay the army and civil service and turning the tide against Mr Gbagbo. But broader economic sanctions affecting the cocoa industry, the backbone of the country's economy, could turn that sector against Mr Ouatarra and further deepen divisions.

The Ivory Coast only emerged from a north-south civil war in 2007, and the 28 November presidential run-off was the culmination of a massive international effort to reconcile the country.

Mr Gbagbo's supporters have denied any involvement with so-called death squads, and blamed any abductions on opposition attempts to discredit the government. However, residents in some neighbourhoods in the capital have described a return of the death squads that Mr Gbagbo used after a failed coup attempt in 2002 which prompted the last civil war. Neighbourhood watch schemes and early-warning systems are used at night to alert people when militias are on the move.

The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights said at least 50 people have been killed and hundreds more abducted, mainly in night-time raids.

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