War fears as Ivorian poll result overturned

The outcome of Ivory Coast's first presidential election in a decade was plunged into doubt yesterday as the constitutional council declared incumbent President Laurent Gbagbo the winner a day after the election chief handed victory to the opposition.

The new results released by a Gbagbo loyalist on national television directly contradicted those announced on Thursday, which were considered credible by the US, the African Union and the United Nations.

Ivory Coast's presidential election was meant to restore stability in the West African nation after a 2002-03 civil war destroyed the economy of one of the most affluent countries on the continent. Instead the poll is now casting a growing shadow. If Gbagbo refuses to step down, many fear the world's top cocoa producer could spiral into violence again.

The results announced on state television by constitutional council head Paul Yao N'Dre cancelled the votes from seven of the country's 19 voting districts, all opposition strongholds where the ruling party claims the vote was marred by violence and intimidation.

"The irregularities are of such a nature that they invalidate the vote (in those districts)," said N'Dre, who is also a senior member of Gbagbo's party.

Erasing those districts wiped out a significant share of opposition leader Alassane Ouattara's margin, resulting in a victory for Gbagbo. His five-year mandate officially expired in 2005. For five years he has repeatedly cancelled the date for this election, claiming the country was too volatile to assure security and later that polls were technically flawed. A 2007 peace deal broke years of political stalemate, leading to the dismantling of a UN-patrolled buffer zone.

The US has urged the parties to accept the election commission's results showing Mr Ouattara had won. "Credible, accredited electoral observers have characterised the balloting as free and fair, and no party should be allowed to obstruct further the electoral process," US National Security Council spokesman Mike Hammer said in a statement.

The African Union said that Thursday's results were satisfactory and asked the country's leaders to put the interest of the Ivory Coast first.

"Any other approach risks plunging Côte d'Ivoire 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 isolated by the ruling elite immediately after Mr Ouattara's win was announced, with a decree read on state TV saying that the nation's air, sea and maritime borders had been closed.

A second decree announced that all foreign TV and radio broadcasts were being banned.

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