Ivory Coast leader sworn in despite dispute

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The Independent Online

Ivory Coast President Laurent Gbagbo was sworn in for a new term Saturday even though the United Nations and others maintain his opponent won the disputed election that was the West African nation's first since a civil war.

In a bold sign Gbagbo would not bow to international pressure to concede defeat, he wrapped himself in the Ivorian flag as he took the oath, pledging to defend the constitution.

The ceremony at the presidential palace came only a day after one of Gbagbo's allies went on state television to overturn previously announced results that showed opposition leader Alassane Ouattara had won.

U.S. President Barack Obama and French President Nicolas Sarkozy say Ouattara's victory must be acknowledged. The top U.N. official in Ivory Coast is also standing by the earlier results putting Ouattara ahead.

"The international community will hold those who act to thwart the democratic process and the will of the electorate accountable for their actions," Obama warned.

Ivory Coast's presidential election was meant to restore stability after a brief 2002-2003 civil war destroyed the economy of one of the most affluent countries in Africa. Instead, the election is casting a growing shadow with Gbagbo holding the inauguration ceremony even as international pressure mounts.

Friday's announcement sparked violent protests in Ivory Coast's main city, Abidjan. On Saturday, Ouattara supporters once again took to the streets, burning tires and a table in one neighborhood.

Gbagbo's five-year mandate expired in 2005 and the country's first election in a decade was delayed multiple times. He claimed first that the West African country was too volatile and that security could not be assured. He later cited technicalities like the composition of the voter roll.

The election went ahead in October but headed to a runoff vote, and the country's election commission announced Thursday that Ouattara had won. However, new results released Friday on national television by a Gbagbo loyalist said that the incumbent president had in fact been re-elected.

The new figures put Gbagbo on top with more than 51 percent of the vote by chucking out some 500,000 ballots from Ouattara strongholds, representing almost a tenth of all the ballots cast.

Those results were broadcast in a continuous loop on TV and on radio stations throughout the country. The figures were immediately rejected by the United Nations, which is responsible for certifying the final results and which held a news conference to reiterate that Ouattara had won.

As soon as the constitutional council declared Gbagbo the victor, angry youths took to the streets, burning tires, and pulling down kiosks and billboards.

The country's constitution gives the council the final word on the outcome of the vote, but a 2007 peace deal signed by Gbagbo said the United Nations would also need to certify the results.

Young-Jin Choi, the top U.N. official in the country, made clear that the U.N. was standing by the earlier results putting Ouattara ahead.

"The results of the second round of the presidential election as they were proclaimed by the president of the Independent Electoral Commission do not change. This confirms Alassane Ouattara as winner of the second round," Choi said at a news conference attended by numerous reporters but not broadcast on local TV.

The move was met by stinging criticism from Gbagbo's camp, which issued a threat to Choi on the evening newscast.

"Mr. Choi is acting against the charter of the U.N. It's a travesty that a bureaucrat at the U.N. wants to designate the president of Ivory Coast," said Alcide Djedje, the country's permanent representative to the United Nations, who is an adviser to Gbagbo. "If he continues like this, we will ask him to leave Ivory Coast."

The 68-year-old Ouattara, a former economist for the International Monetary Fund, held his own press conference a short while later.

"The special representative of the Secretary-General just certified the results given by the Independent Electoral Commission which declares me the winner of the second round of the election," he said. "I am thus president of the Ivory Coast."

The African Union warned the government to put the nation first and to accept the results. "Any other approach risks plunging (Ivory Coast) into a crisis with incalculable consequences for the country, as well as for the region and the continent as a whole," the AU said in a statement.

The country was placed on lockdown immediately after the commission announced Ouattara's win on Thursday, with a decree read on state TV saying the nation's air and land borders had been closed and that foreign TV and radio had been banned.