Ivory Coast forces block UN access to mass graves

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The Independent Online

A day after Ivory Coast's new ambassador to the United Nations warned that post-election chaos has left his country on the "brink on genocide," peacekeepers yesterday claimed forces loyal to the incumbent president are blocking access to mass graves.

The UN said security forces loyal to Laurent Gbagbo accompanied by masked men with rocket launchers prevented their personnel entering a building suspected to hold between 60 and 80 bodies, In a separate incident earlier this week a peacekeeper patrol was attacked and a soldier injured with a machete.

Aggravating the dispute, one of Mr Gbagbo's ministers urged supporters to force Alassane Ouattara – internationally recognised as the winner of last month's disputed poll – out of his headquarters in a hotel in Abidjan, the commercial capital.

A pro-Gbagbo newspaper yesterday quoted Charles Blé Goudé, minister of youth and employment, saying that Mr Ouattara and his prime minister "have until 1 January to pack their bags and leave the Golf Hotel".

Last night the UN Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon, warned Gbagbo loyalists not to attack Mr Ouattara's headquarters as it could "reignite civil war".

The episode underlines the failure thus far of both the international community and the regional bloc the Economic Community of West African States, Ecowas, to enforce the democratic process in the Ivory Coast, which is the world's largest producer of cocoa.

Ivory Coast was once an oasis of stability in a troubled region but a civil war in 2002 and 2003 left the former French colony divided into a rebel-controlled north and loyalist south.

The presidential poll this year was meant to pull the country together, but after Gbagbo refused to step down violence, including firefights in Abijdan, has left 173 dead and raised fears of a return to all-out conflict. Human rights groups allege abductions and torture.

Mr Gbagbo is essentially friendless abroad, pilloried by his fellow African presidents as well as the US, the UN and France. Yet despite the imposition of sanctions he retains the control of the army and most state institutions.

Earlier this week the presidents of Sierra Leone, Cape Verde and Benin went to Ivory Coast to persuade Mr Gbagbo to step down, as emissaries of Ecowas.

Ecowas's leadership suggested members would mount a military intervention if Mr Gbagbo did not step aside. That bellicose rhetoric softened as he stood firm and the period of negotiation was extended to next week. But a meeting of military chiefs from Ecowas in Nigeria's capital, Abuja, suggests planning for deployment has taken place.