Five protesters killed as UN peacekeepers open fire in Ivory Coast

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The Independent Online

Ivory Coast is tottering on the brink of renewed civil war after at least five people died in violent confrontations between UN peacekeepers and youthful supporters of President Laurent Gbagbo. Young "patriots" blocked the streets of Abidjan, the country's economic capital, for the third day to protest against a proposal to dissolve the pro-Gbagbo national assembly.

In the town of Guiglo, west of the capital, UN troops from Bangladesh fired on protesters who tried to storm their compound. Officials said at least five people had died.

The growing violence in the Ivory Coast, mostly aimed at UN buildings, vehicles and troops, has drawn angry comments from the United Nations secretary general, Kofi Annan. On Tuesday, he came close to accusing President Gbagbo of fomenting the protests to impede the efforts of a UN-sponsored peace process to broker an end to the conflict which split the country into north and south in 2002-03.

Mr Annan protested against "the orchestrated violence directed against the United Nations ... as well as the inaction of some national authorities in responding to the situation".

Yesterday, France, the former colonial power in Ivory Coast, which has its own military force in the west African country, warned President Gbagbo that the patience of foreign mediators was wearing thin.

The French army chief of staff, General Henri Bentegeat, said he believed the time had come for UN sanctions against Ivory Coast, and the Security Council is planning to target Ivory Coast leaders. Although the country remains the world's largest producer of cocoa, its economy has been impoverished by almost four years of intermittent fighting. "The UN Security Council has warned for a long time that sanctions are needed," General Bentegeat said. "The international community is growing tired of the manifest bad faith of both sides."

A UN-backed international mediation group recommended at the weekend that the expired mandate of the pro-Gbagbo national assembly should not be renewed. President Gbagbo is leading a government of national unity, which extended his presidential mandate for a year but has severely limited his day-to- day executive influence.

The call to dissolve parliament, which is seen as one of the last bastions of his power, angered the Gbagbo loyalists, or so-called "patriots". For the past three days, they have poured on to the streets, setting up checkpoints and burning tyres. President Gbagbo has banned all street demonstrations but his security forces did nothing to disperse his supporters.

On Tuesday, peacekeepers fired warning shots and tear gas grenades at protesters trying to breach the security walls of their headquarters in Abidjan. In San Pedro, on the Atlantic coast, demonstrators lobbed fire bombs into a UN office. In Guiglo, 300 UN troops from Bangladesh withdrew from the town after exchanging fire with protesters. A doctor at Guiglo's main hospital said that two bodies lay at the morgue and there were three more corpses in the streets.

International efforts to bring a permanent settlement to Ivory Coast began to falter in October when Mr Gbagbo cancelled presidential elections. He claimed that the rebel forces, which have controlled the north of the country since a failed coup in 2002, had refused to disarm. The UN and the African Union agreed a one-year extension of Mr Gbagbo's mandate. In return, a Prime Minister, Charles Konan Banny, was approved by both sides and formed a national unity government in December.