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US in Talks on Boosting UN Force in Ivory Coast

UN forces patrol on a street in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, after UN chief warns that Ivory Coast faces 'real risk' of return to civil war, Dec 22, 2010

UN forces patrol on a street in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, after UN chief warns that Ivory Coast faces 'real risk' of return to civil war, Dec 22, 2010

The United States says it is talking with France and West African states about "augmenting" the U.N. peacekeeping force in Ivory Coast as the political crisis there persists. Ivory Coast President Laurent Gbagbo continues to resist calls to step down in favor of the internationally recognized winner of last month's election, Alassane Ouattara.

State Department officials say contacts are under way with France and member states of the West African regional grouping ECOWAS about sending more troops to Ivory Coast, as tensions there mount.

A U.N. force of some 10,000 troops has been in Ivory Coast since civil warfare began there nearly a decade ago, supplemented by a contingent of almost 1,000 French troops.

Defying a demand by Gbagbo that the peacekeepers leave, the U.N. Security Council this week extended the mandate of the force.

At a news briefing Wednesday, State Department Spokesman P.J. Crowley said the talks about expanding the force are being driven by concern that militiamen loyal to Gbagbo might try to evict the peacekeepers, or that the current situation might flare into renewed civil warfare.

"Given the challenge that President Gbagbo issued for the U.N. force to depart, we can't rule out that at some point in time, he may challenge the presence of that force through force of his own," said Crowley. "We want to make sure that the U.N. has the capability to maintain peace and stability in Cote D'Ivoire (Ivory Coast) while this is worked through. So we are in discussions with other regional countries to see if there are ways we can reinforce the U.N. peacekeeping force."

Crowley said U.S. concerns about the situation are growing amid reports that militiamen loyal to Gbagbo are intimidating, and possibly even killing, members of the opposition.

The Ivoirian leader continues to defy calls that he step down in favor of Ouattara, the internationally-recognized winner of the country's November 28th presidential election.

The United States joined the European Union Tuesday in imposing travel sanctions on Gbagbo and close associates. Crowley said additional U.S. financial sanctions, aimed at cutting off funding for his government, are "under active consideration."

The State Department spokesman rejected a call by Gbagbo for an international panel to re-examine results of the election.

Crowley said the outcome already has been certified by foreign monitors and the country's own electoral commission, and that there were no incidents of alleged fraud serious enough to alter the outcome.

He also dismissed Gbagbo's assertion that the country is calm, saying the international community is documenting widespread human rights abuses, and that both the International Criminal Court and the U.N. Human Rights Council are taking up the issue.