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Ivory Coast  President Denies Government Involvement in Death Squads - 2003-03-01

Ivory Coast's President Laurent Gbagbo has vigorously denied international charges that his government operates death squads.

President Gbagbo has defended his government's human rights record and has lashed out at international media coverage of Ivory Coast's civil war.

The president used more than half of a two-hour news conference Saturday to give a speech contesting international allegations that his government sponsors death squads.

Mr. Gbagbo said he would sue the French newspapers Le Monde and La Croix over articles they have published about alleged death squad activity in Ivory Coast.

President Gbagbo said he condemns death squads and denied that he or his influential wife, Simone, have had anything to do with political killings. Ivory Coast is not, in the president's words, "governed by an assassin."

Senior members of the government broke into frequent applause during the event. Also present were senior military staff and ambassadors from several nations.

The U.N. Human Rights office recently issued a report saying the death squads are made up of people close to the government and included presidential guards and members of President Gbagbo's Bete tribal group.

Anti-government rebels have also been accused of killing unarmed policemen and other atrocities.

France and the United States have condemned human rights abuses in Ivory Coast and have demanded that the perpetrators be brought to justice.

President Gbagbo declined to discuss a political impasse that is holding up formation of a national unity government with participation of rebel leaders and opposition figures.

The rebels and the government agreed to the plan in January during French-mediated peace talks to end a five-month civil war that has killed hundreds of people and displaced nearly one million others.