UNITED NATIONS – The U.N. Security Council on Wednesday demanded an immediate end to the escalating violence in Ivory Coast and imposed sanctions on Laurent Gbagbo, who has refused to relinquish the presidency, and his inner circle.
Wednesday's council vote was unanimous and came five days after France and Nigeria introduced a draft resolution expressing "grave concern" that the west African nation could relapse into civil war.
"I think the sense of urgency is obvious since ... the confrontation is extending in Ivory Coast and the situation is worsening by the hour," France's U.N. Ambassador Gerard Araud said. The message "is very simple — Gbagbo must go. It is the only way to avoid a full-fledged civil war."
The U.N.'s most powerful body voted on the day that fighters supporting Ivory Coast's internationally recognized President Alassane Ouattara seized control of the country's administrative capital, Yamoussoukro. It was seen as a symbolic victory by Ouattara's forces after months of political chaos that began when Gbagbo, the incumbent president, refused to recognize the results of the November election.
The resolution demanded "an immediate end to the violence" and urged all Ivorian parties "to respect the will of the people and the election" of Ouattara as president.
It condemned Gbagbo's decision not to accept the solution proposed by a high-level African Union panel earlier this month, which includes recognizing Ouattara as president, and urged him step aside immediately.
The African Union also had suggested getting Ouattara to appoint members of Gbagbo's political party to a unity government. Ouattara said he has embraced this idea since last year's presidential campaign, but Gbagbo rejected it.
The resolution backs the African Union proposal and calls for "an overall political solution that preserves democracy and peace and promotes lasting reconciliation among Ivorians."
Ivory Coast, the world's largest cocoa producer, has been in turmoil for almost a decade.
It was split into a rebel-controlled north and government-controlled south after an attempted coup sparked civil war in 2002. A peace deal in March 2007 brought key rebel leaders into the administration and offered hope for a single government after years of foundering accords and disarmament plans. But the results of the Nov. 29 presidential election made clear that deep divisions remain.
U.N. sanctions on Ivory Coast, including an arms embargo and controls on the export of rough diamonds, have been in effect since 2004.
To step up pressure, the latest resolution slapped a travel ban and asset freeze on Gbagbo, his wife Simone, and three key supporters, Desire Tagro, Pascal Affi N'Guessan, and Alcide Djedje.
The resolution was the most robust since the crisis over the presidency, though the council didn't impose tough financial or trade sanctions.
U.S. Ambassador Susan Rice said the resolution sends a strong signal "both of council unity and the international community's determination that the people of Ivory Coast once and for all have the opportunity to see a government by the people installed."
Ivory Coast's U.N. Ambassador Youssoufou Bamba, who represents Ouattara, called the council action "a strong, robust response" to the worsening violence in his country.
The resolution reiterates the Security Council's longstanding demand that Gbagbo "without delay" lift the siege of the Golf Hotel, where Ouattara is holed up protected by U.N. peacekeepers.
The Security Council also targeted forces loyal to Gbagbo who have used mortars to fire on civilians in the capital, Abidjan.
At least 25 people were killed on March 17 when Gbagbo loyalists fired several mortar shells at a market building in the rebel-held Abobo district of Abidjan. Gbagbo's forces earlier used heavy machine guns against women demonstrating peacefully in support of Ouattara in Abobo on March 3, killing seven and seriously wounding many others.
The resolution "condemns in the strongest terms the recent escalation of violence throughout the country which could amount to crimes against humanity," singling out the attacks against civilians in Abobo.
It also stressed the council's "full support" for the U.N. peacekeeping force in Ivory Coast "to use all necessary means to carry out its mandate to protect civilians under imminent threat of physical violence ... including to prevent the use of heavy weapons against the civilian population."
Nigeria's U.N. Ambassador U. Joy Ogwu said the timing of the vote was critical, coming amid troubling reports that the growing violence was taking on ethnic and sectarian overtones and that innocent civilians, especially women and children were being targeted.
The resolution called on all parties to fully cooperate with an investigation of alleged rights abuses in Ivory Coast by the U.N. Human Rights Council's independent international commission.
The initial draft's call for the commission's report to be sent to the prosecutor at the International Criminal Court was dropped. Instead, the resolution calls for the report to be sent to the Security Council "and other relevant international organizations."
The International Criminal Court's prosecutor, Luis Moreno-Ocampo, is already conducting a preliminary examination of possible war crimes and crimes against humanity in Ivory Coast.
Associated Press Writer Anita Snow contributed to this report from the United Nations