The United Nations says attacks against its peacekeepers in Ivory Coast may constitute war crimes.
The 9,000 U.N. peacekeepers currently deployed in Ivory Coast are there, according to the U.N. mandate, to prevent a repeat of the 2002 civil war that divided this country between its mostly Muslim north and Christian south.
But increasingly, those peacekeepers find themselves involved in what appears to be the country's second civil war. In the past week, as hostilities increased in the country's west, U.N. personnel in the country's commercial capital Abidjan have been shot at, blocked in the roads by angry young men, and even kidnapped.
For the most part, the attacks have come from soldiers and supporters of Laurent Gbagbo, the incumbent president, and a Christian southerner, who the United Nations says lost last November's elections.
Gbagbo has characterized the U.N. as an occupying army, coming to impose the will of the former colonizer France, and demanded the departure of the peacekeeping presence.
The U.N. says it won't go because it recognizes President Gbagbo's opponent, Alassane Ouattara, as the winner of the November vote. The U.N. mission's chief, Young-jin Choi, says that if pro-Gbagbo forces continue to attack U.N. personnel, Gbagbo could be one day tried for war crimes.
There had been a degree of moderation until now where the military forces of Laurent Gbagbo did not shoot directly, except for a few exceptional occasions in the past, he says. But the other day, in the opposition stronghold of Abobo, he says three peacekeepers received bullets in their helmets. He says if they didn't have helmets they would have died on the spot. That's a very serious attack, he adds, and he says we have warned Gbagbo's camp not to repeat this, that it's a war crime to attack U.N. peacekeepers.
The U.N. says it has reports that the entrenched incumbent president is preparing for a second round of civil war in this country, whose once-vibrant economy was already ruined by its first. The U.N. says Gbagbo may be recruiting Liberian mercenaries, left over from that neighboring country's 14-year civil war. He is also said to have flown in assault helicopters purchased from Belarus.
The U.N. was unable to confirm those reports, however, because their inspectors were attacked when they tried to visit the landing pad.
Choi says they've been blocked from visiting all kinds of hotspots in this increasingly chaotic nation, mostly by pro-Gbagbo militias.
He says those militias are being stirred into action by Gbagbo's propaganda -- except that they may be going farther than even the incumbent president is willing to go.
He says there has been a transformation of what had been moderate harassment into direct acts of hostility, which are extreme. Therefore, he says, it seems that President Gbagbo may have lost control of his army.