ABIDJAN, Ivory Coast – A fiery member of incumbent President Laurent Gbagbo's Cabinet urged supporters of the leader, who was declared the loser of elections last month but refuses to give up power, to seize a hotel where the winning candidate has been organizing a shadow government under U.N. protection.
Charles Ble Goude was quoted by a pro-Gbagbo newspaper Thursday as saying Alassane Ouattara, whom the United Nations declared the winner of the Nov. 28 vote, and his prime minister "have until January 1, 2011 to pack their bags and leave the Golf Hotel."
West African leaders on Wednesday took possible military intervention off the table for now so negotiations can continue on Monday to have Gbagbo hand over power in Ivory Coast. ECOWAS, the Economic Community of West African States, has sent combat troops to several nations in the past two decades. Defense officials from the member states met Wednesday in Abuja, Nigeria, where the bloc is based.
"He who attacks Laurent Gbagbo will sorely regret it," Ble Goude was reported as telling Gbagbo supporters in the Yopougon neighborhood, where a U.N. patrol was surrounded by a mob on Tuesday and one peacekeeper was wounded by a machete. "No on can remove our president from power."
U.N. peacekeeping chief Alain Leroy said the U.N. has become a target of violence after a campaign of "disturbing lies" on state television suggested that the UN is arming and transporting anti-Gbagbo rebels.
Ble Goude is Gbagbo's minister of youth and employment, known as the "street general" for organizing a violent anti-French and anti-U.N. gang that terrorized the foreign population in Ivory Coast in 2004-2005. The beachside Golf Hotel is protected by a strong contingent of blue-helmeted U.N. peacekeepers.
Under a 2007 peace deal that was to seal an end to frictions that erupted in civil war in 2002 and 2003, the U.N. was tasked with certifying the results of the election. The U.N. declared Ouattara the winner, echoing the country's own electoral commission chief. Gbagbo insists he won, pointing out that the Ivory Coast constitutional council declared him the winner. The council, which is led by a Gbagbo ally, had invalidated half a million ballots from Ouattara strongholds in the north.
The United States and other world powers have insisted Gbagbo hand over power to Ouattara. For many, the credibility of the international community is at stake if it is unable to ensure that Ouattara takes power.
Chaos in Ivory Coast, once a West African economic powerhouse with skyscrapers dominating this seaside commercial center, already has kept Gbagbo in power five years beyond his mandate.
Ivory Coast's new U.N. ambassador, Youssoufou Bamba, said he is worried about his country's future and is consulting with members of the Security Council ahead of a meeting next week on ways to help Ouattara assume power.
"We are on the brink of genocide," Bamba said after presenting his diplomatic credentials to Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon in New York.
Practical obstacles may prevent ECOWAS troop deployment to Ivory Coast, said Africa security analyst Peter Pham. The best troops from ECOWAS states are already deployed on missions elsewhere such as Sudan, and even if soldiers could be found, transport logistics would be a challenge, he said.
"Gbagbo called their bluff on their ability to follow through on any sort of military threat," said Pham, of the National Committee on American Foreign Policy, a New York-based think tank. "Sending a peacekeeping force is one thing, but an invasion force that will be resisted by the national military is quite another."
U.S. State Department spokesman Mark Toner said the United States has begun planning for the possible evacuation of its embassy in Ivory Coast amid concerns of a full-blown conflict.
Associated Press writers Anita Snow at the United Nations; Nastasya Tay in Johannesburg; and Matthew Lee in Washington contributed to this report.