Ivory Coast leader orders seizure of regional bank

Incumbent leader Laurent Gbagbo's government has ordered the seizure of the regional central bank's offices in Ivory Coast in an attempt to retain control of state finances after being cut off from the money used to pay civil servants.

His political rival Alassane Ouattara, who is the internationally recognized winner of the presidential election held nearly two months ago, condemned the move Wednesday.

"This illegitimate and illegal decision to requisition is null and void. Thus, anyone who participates directly or indirectly in its implementation will be subject to sanctions and criminal prosecution," the statement said.

A spokeswoman at the bank's headquarters in Dakar, Senegal was not immediately available for comment.

Without access to government funds, it's unclear whether Gbagbo will be able to continuing paying the country's military and security forces. Ouattara supporters hope that by stemming the flow of funds to Gbagbo's government they can force a mass defection.

Gbagbo's finance minister Desire Dallo announced on state television late Tuesday that the Ivorian government was seizing the regional bank's offices in Ivory Coast. Employees are to answer to local officials in Ivory Coast instead of the regional bank headquarters in Senegal, the order said.

The bank's branch in Abidjan was open Wednesday, and dozens of soldiers and military police surrounded the building, only allowing bank employees to enter.

A security guard, who did not want his name used because he was not authorized to speak to journalists, said two top officials in Gbagbo's government had entered the building to speak to employees.

The Central Bank of West African States, known by its acronym BCEAO, regroups the treasuries of eight West African countries: Benin, Burkina Faso, Ivory Coast, Guinea-Bissau, Mali, Niger, Senegal and Togo.

Gbagbo's access to state accounts was first revoked in December, when officials said that only representatives of Ouattara's government would have signing privileges on state accounts. However, Ouattara officials said despite that action, Gbagbo had been able to still access money from the central bank.

The head of the central bank, a Gbagbo supporter who had been accused of not cooperating with Ouattara, resigned Saturday.

As the political crisis over the disputed election drags on, the two men vying for power in Ivory Coast have increasingly tried to step up the financial pressure on one another. Earlier this week, Ouattara called for a one-month on cocoa exports from the country, which is the world's largest cocoa producer.

The 15-nation West African bloc of countries known as ECOWAS also has threatened to oust Gbagbo by force if negotiations fail, but has set no deadline for such an intervention.

Ivory Coast was divided into a rebel-controlled north and a loyalist south by a 2002-2003 civil war. The country was officially reunited in a 2007 peace deal, but the long-delayed presidential election was intended to help reunify the nation. Instead, the U.N. says at least 260 people have been killed in violence since the vote.

Human Rights Watch said Wednesday that security forces and militias loyal to Gbagbo have been carrying out systematic killing and rapes targeting Ouattara supporters.

The report cited several witnesses who said that the militiamen would demand to see identity cards of those stopped at the roadblocks and decided to kill them if they had last names from the north of the country, where Ouattara's support is strong.

Police also targeted midlevel Ouattara party members, arriving at their houses and asking for them by name before kidnapping them, the report said. In some cases, family members were raped during these house calls and several party members were found later in city morgues riddled with bullets, it said.

Gbagbo's allies have repeatedly denied any involvement in the postelection violence.