Thousands of Ivorians flee to Liberia as tensions mount

About 14,000 people have fled Ivory Coast for neighbouring Liberia, UN said, as fears mount that an election dispute in the West African state will rekindle a civil war.

Thousands of Ivorians flee to Liberia as tensions mount

About 14,000 people have fled Ivory Coast for neighbouring Liberia, the United Nations said, as fears mount that an election dispute in the West African state will rekindle a civil war.

Heads of state from regional bloc ECOWAS added to world pressure on Ivory Coast's incumbent leader Laurent Gbagbo to cede power to rival presidential claimant Alassane Ouattara, saying he could face "legitimate force" if he refuses.

It was the first direct threat of foreign military intervention in the election standoff, which has killed nearly 200 people since the Nov. 28 vote.

"UNHCR has registered a total of 14,000 Ivorian refugees in eastern Liberia who fled in the wake of post-electoral instability," the U.N.'s refugee agency said on its website. "With their numbers growing, the humanitarian needs are increasing for the mostly women and children refugees as well as for the villagers hosting them."

A spokesman for Gbagbo's government said on Saturday in an interview with Radio France Internationale that the ECOWAS threat of force was "unjust".

"Ultimatum"

The political impasse and fear of more violence in the country still divided after the 2002-03 civil war tamed Christmas celebrations as fearful citizens stayed home.

"This is the worst Christmas I have experienced so far. Even in 2002 when there was war, it was better. The problem now is that people are tired. Two presidents, two governments, all this is too much for people," said Saibou Coulibaly, a toy vendor in the main city Abidjan.

The ECOWAS declaration said the bloc would send an envoy to Ivory Coast to deliver an ultimatum to Gbagbo.

The presidents of Benin, Sierra Leone and Cap Vert will tell Gbagbo on behalf of regional bloc ECOWAS "that he must step down as quickly as possible or face legitimate military force," Benin's Foreign Minister Jean Marie Ehouzou told Reuters.

The United States, United Nations, European Union, African Union and ECOWAS have all recognised the provisional electoral commission results showing Ouattara as the winner.

But Gbagbo has shown no sign of caving in and insists he won the election after the Constitutional Court, which is headed by one of his allies, threw out hundreds of thousands of votes from pro-Ouattara constituencies.

Deteriorating security in the former French colony led France this week to urge its 13,000 citizens there to leave.

The West African regional central bank last week cut Gbagbo off from the Ivorian accounts, deepening a cash crunch that could make it hard for him to continue paying the wages of soldiers who back him.

The move came on the heels of a decision by the World Bank to freeze some $800 million in committed financing.

Military support for Gbagbo is regarded as one of the main reasons he has been able to defy calls to step down.


Agencies

Last Mod: 26 Aralık 2010, 11:01
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