ABIDJAN, Ivory Coast – The man considered to be the legitimate president of Ivory Coast following the recent election said Wednesday that a military operation to oust the incumbent who is refusing to leave office would not cause a war, as African leaders warned that force should only be a last resort.
The 15-nation regional bloc ECOWAS has threatened to remove incumbent leader Laurent Gbagbo if negotiations fail, though some analysts question whether ECOWAS could carry out such a mission without a full-scale invasion and civilian casualties.
"It will not end in a war because clearly ECOWAS will make the decision quickly to remove him and removing him does not mean civil war in Ivory Coast," Alassane Ouattara told The Associated Press in Abidjan. "I want this to be clear. Removing one person does not mean civil war."
While the United Nations and other world powers recognize Ouattara as the winner, Gbagbo has refused to step down for more than a month after the November presidential runoff. Gbagbo, who has been in power for a decade, maintains control of the military and human rights groups accuse his security forces of killing political opponents.
The African Union's envoy to Ivory Coast said Wednesday that a military ouster should only be a last resort.
"Lives will be lost, not just lives of soldiers but also lives of innocent civilians," Kenyan Prime Minister Raila Odinga told journalists in the Kenyan capital, Nairobi, following his visits to Ivory Coast and Nigeria this week. "That's really the reason why we are walking the extra mile for a peaceful resolution of this conflict."
Odinga represented the African Union when a high-level regional delegation went to Abidjan on Monday for the second time to urge Gbagbo to leave. He has rebuffed their appeals and shown no interest in handing over power to Ouattara.
Charles Ble Goude — a minister in Gbagbo's government who heads an infamous, militia-like organization allied with the incumbent — held a rally at sunset Wednesday to warn the international community to keep its hands off.
"No army can come to Ivory Coast and remove the president. ... It's not in Abidjan that such a thing will happen. Are you going to accept that?" he screamed, as the crowd fervently answered: "No!"
The international community finds itself in a difficult situation because Ivory Coast has a history of violence and the United Nations says security forces already have been responsible for dozens of 'disappearances.' U.N. investigators have received tips about at least two mass graves but have been prevented from visiting the sites.
Gbagbo is backed by the Young Patriots — the group led by Goude, which in 2004 incited people to attack foreigners, especially the French, whom they accuse of trying to topple Gbagbo.
At one point, his group began systematically raping French women and the French military organized a massive evacuation of its citizens. Some French women were airlifted by helicopter off of the tops of their apartment buildings.
Col. Mohammed Yerima, a Nigerian military spokesman, said defense chiefs from ECOWAS member states met last week to begin strategizing what sort of assault they would use if talks fail. However, Nigeria's president, who is the current chair of the regional bloc, said this week said that a solution to Ivory Coast's deepening political crisis will take time, suggesting no such operation is imminent.
It remains unclear whether African troops have the technology and skill to mount a 'decapitation strike' in an urban center. And the 9,800-strong United Nations peacekeeping force does not have a mandate that allows them to participate in a military intervention.
To change that mandate to one that would authorize force against Gbagbo would require a new U.N. Security Council resolution, which would require approval by the five permanent members. It also would need the consent of the troop-contributing countries. On Wednesday, Alain Le Roy, the U.N.'s peacekeeping chief said he will formally request an additional 1,000 to 2,000 peacekeepers from the Security Council to beef up the force in Ivory Coast.
The French government says its forces in Ivory Coast will protect French citizens but won't be making any decisions about an international military intervention either.
Gbagbo came to power in 2000 and ruled during the civil war that erupted two years later, then overstayed his legal term which expired in 2005. The election was rescheduled at least six times before it was finally held in October.
Associated Press Writer Tom Maliti in Nairobi, Kenya contributed to this report.
(This version adds request by UN for more troops. CORRECTS number of peacekeepers.)