UNITED NATIONS – The United Nations said Monday it was still working to verify a report that Ivory Coast's defiant leader had received three military attack helicopters from Belarus in violation of an international arms embargo.
A senior diplomat in Abidjan called the news a potential "game changer" and said — if true — it would mean sitting Ivory Coast President Laurent Gbagbo — whose forces are accused of killing hundreds of civilians — would be able to use the helicopters to commit even graver abuses.
The office of U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said in a statement early Monday that the three helicopters had reportedly arrived Sunday at the airport at Yamoussoukro, and that three more flights were scheduled for Monday. The choppers and other materiel allegedly were being sent to forces loyal to Gbagbo, who has refused to cede the presidency to the internationally recognized winner of November elections.
Belarus denied it, and Ban's spokesman Martin Nesirky later acknowledged that a U.N. team in the West African country had not confirmed the report.
The team of U.N. experts in Ivory Coast were "unable to verify the information and indeed was forced to withdraw" when it went to the airport Sunday night to investigate reports that a flight carrying helicopter parts had arrived, and was shot at, Nesirky said.
Ban had said that the first delivery of helicopters was believed to have taken place Sunday, and additional flights were scheduled for Monday.
"This is a serious violation of the embargo against Cote d'Ivoire, which has been in place since 2004," Ban's statement said, using the country's French name. "The violation has been immediately brought to the attention of the Security Council's committee charged with the responsibility for sanctions." The Security Council did not meet on the matter Monday and had no session scheduled for Tuesday.
Ban told reporters at the Holocaust Museum in Washington on Monday after a meeting with President Barack Obama that the U.N. peacekeeping operation in Ivory Coast "is trying to verify this information."
The U.N. chief said if the report were true, "this would be very dangerous in our own effort to resolve this issue peacefully."
Ban also once again called on Gbagbo to cede the country's leadership to opposition leader Alassane Ouattara, U.N.-certified winner of the balloting
Belarus denied the allegations, but the senior diplomat, who asked not to be named because of the sensitivity of the matter, said that the internal report from the U.N. flagging the helicopter shipment was written by an experienced arms investigator. He cautioned, however, that no one had seen the helicopters.
The reported arrivals followed a week of intensified street battles in Abidjan and the country's west left dozens dead and that the U.N. warns may re-ignite the country's dormant civil war.
Gbagbo is refusing to leave office after losing the Nov. 28 presidential election, according to results issued by the country's electoral commission. He accuses the U.N. of siding with Ouattara, who — according to results certified by the U.N. — won the election with over half-a-million votes, a landslide representing a 9-point margin.
Because many western governments have also recognized Ouattara's election win, Gbagbo has been able to portray himself as a proud African leader besieged by foreign interests. His supporters have been given free reign to not only attack pro-Ouattara neighborhoods, but also U.N. peacekeepers, including two who were briefly kidnapped Monday.
The peacekeepers were grabbed from their cars by the Young Patriots, a violent youth militia allied with Gbagbo, and taken to a Republican Guard base, according to an internal U.N. report leaked to The Associated Press. The U.N. peacekeeping office in New York said the pair was released hours later.
Also on Monday, the U.N. refugee agency said as many as 30,000 civilians had fled the Abobo neighborhood of Abidjan where the fighting raged over the weekend. They could be seen streaming out of the affected area carrying suitcases on their heads.
Gbagbo's air force was destroyed by the French military during the country's earlier civil war, which erupted in 2002. The reported arrival of the attack helicopters means his regime now has air power, which could not only endanger civilian areas but also the Golf Hotel where the man considered to be the legitimate president of Ivory Coast is holed up with hundreds of his supporters.
Even though Ouattara has been recognized as the legitimate leader of Ivory Coast by governments around the world, including the United States, the European Union and the African Union, he has been forced to begin his term inside a hotel, where he is under 24-hour U.N. guard.
Several hundred U.N. peacekeepers are stationed on the grounds, but it is not clear if the U.N. is set up to protect the hotel from an air assault.
In Dakar, Senegal, the head of the United Nations mission in Ivory Coast Choi Young-jin told reporters that the U.N. would deploy as many as half of its 10,000-strong peacekeeping force to reinforce the hotel.
The hotel houses Ouattara's government, including his Cabinet, as well as his newly launched TV station which is attempting to act as a counterweight to the pro-Gbagbo propaganda disseminated on state-owned TV.
Belarusian Foreign Ministry spokesman Andrei Savinykh rejected the accusations of selling the military attack helicopters on Monday, calling them "groundless."
"Belarus hasn't supplied any weapons to Ivory Coast in violation of U.N. sanctions," Savinykh told The Associated Press.
Multiple delegations of African leaders have come through Abidjan in an attempt to persuade Gbagbo to leave peacefully. He has rejected all their proposals, including offers of amnesty and a comfortable exile abroad.
A regional body of 15 countries in West Africa has said it will consider a military assault as a final resort if Gbagbo does not step down.
He is being strangled financially because the EU has prohibited European ships from docking in its port. The regional central bank headquartered in the neighboring country of Senegal also has frozen Gbagbo's access to state accounts and it is unclear if he will be able to pay civil servant employees in February.
Associated Press writers Rukmini Callimachi and Marco Chown Oved in Abidjan, Ivory Coast; Yuras Karmanau in Minsk, Belarus; Sadibou Marone in Dakar, Senegal and Peter James Spielmann in New York contributed to this report.