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UN says 14,000 Flee Ivory Coast for Liberia; Pressure Builds on Gbagbo to Abdicate

Bate Felix

UN forces drive past a billboard for President Laurent Gbagbo in the Ivory Coast. (Photo: AP)

ABIDJAN - Three West African presidents will fly to Ivory Coast on
Tuesday to tell incumbent leader Laurent Gbagbo to quit or face force,
Benin said on Saturday, a sign of mounting regional determination to
force him out.

Gbagbo has so far resisted calls to cede power to rival presidential
candidate Alassane Ouattara after a Nov. 28 election which African
neighbours, the United Nations, the United States and the European Union
all say Ouattara won.

The United Nations said on Saturday it had so far counted 14,000
refugees fleeing Ivory Coast for neighbouring Liberia since the vote, as
fears mount that the dispute will rekindle a 2002-03 civil war.

Humanitarian needs were increasing for the "mostly women and children
refugees as well as for the villagers hosting them," UNHCR said on its
website. Nearly 200 people have died in violence since the election.

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.

A spokesman for Gbagbo's government -- which is also facing travel
bans and funding freezes -- said on Saturday in an interview with Radio
France Internationale that the ECOWAS threat of force was "unjust."

Christmas celebrations were muted in the country 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.


Gbagbo 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.


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The standoff turned violent last week with brief gun battles between
government soldiers loyal to Gbagbo and rebels who now back Ouattara.
The United Nations and human rights groups have said gunmen are now
attacking pro-Ouattara neighbourhoods by night, kidnapping and killing

George Kouadio, a teacher, said he prayed during Christmas Eve mass
that the political crisis would not reach the point of renewed civil

"Ivory Coast has suffered too much in the past 10 years," he said. "I
asked the Lord to help us find peace, but especially give wisdom to our

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
Ivorian accounts, worsening 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.

Ivory Coast's $2.3 billion bond due in 2032 fell to a record low last
week as investors worried the country would not meet a $30 million bond
payment on Dec. 31.

The turmoil in Ivory Coast has also sent cocoa prices to four-month
highs, disrupting export registrations and raising fears that fighting
could block transport and shipping.

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