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Foreign envoys accused of attempting to influence I.Coast army

The Ivory Coast crisis took a disturbing new turn after Gbagbo accused foreign envoys of seeking to turn the military against him

AFP, Sunday 12 Dec 2010
Ivory Coast army
Ivory Coast soldiers parade in front of the new Minister of Defense Alain Dogou in Abidjan 9 December 2010. (Reuters)
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Laurent Gbagbo has become locked in a dangerous face-off with long-time rival Alassane Ouattara after both claimed victory in last month's presidential election, subsequently declaring themselves president and naming rival governments.

Ouattara has been recognised by the United Nations and the international community, but Gbagbo retains control of the Ivorian army and the country's main cocoa-exporting harbours, which are key to his ability to rule.

On Saturday, Gbagbo's newly named "interior minister" accused un-identified foreign diplomats of trying to suborn senior military officers and threatened unspecified reprisals against international interference.

"For several days, civil and military members of certain Western chancelleries in Abidjan have discreetly approached senior officers in our national army," Emile Guirieoulou alleged.

He warned that Gbagbo's government "will no longer tolerate meddling by any diplomat in the internal affairs of the state of Ivory Coast".

The United Nations has ordered 460 non-essential staff out of the country and France is drawing up plans to evacuate thousands of its nationals from its former colony if needed.

Ouattara declared himself president based on UN-endorsed results from the 28 November election and is trying to keep his grip on the levers of state, demanding that members of the military and civil service abandon Gbagbo.

Ivorians have watched anxiously to see how Gbagbo will respond. Reports said he was ready to talk with Ouattara's side, which has rejected any suggestion of negotiations unless their man is recognised as head of state.

Guirieoulou's declaration reinforced Gbagbo's defiant front against pressure from world powers for him to bring an end his troubled decade in power.

The United States has made repeated threats of sanctions against Gbagbo.

Guirieoulou alleged that, as well as contacts with the national military, "approaches have been made to state media, to regulatory bodies and to top directors of the media".

"The aim of these moves is to find military personnel and police" to back Ouattara and "to recruit the state media in an effort to destabilise and break up peace and social cohesion", he claimed.

Gbagbo has control of the national army, some 18,000 troops and of the mainly Christian south with its key ports, cocoa fields and oil facilities.

Ouattara, a former prime minister from the largely Muslim rebel-held north, has named former rebel Guillaume Soro, 38, to head his rival government.

Soro has several thousand northern "New Forces" troops, former rebels, behind him and has warned they could mobilise if Gbagbo does not budge, but says he is seeking a peaceful solution.

Some army commanders have pledged allegiance to Gbagbo, but analysts and allies of Ouattara say his military support may not be absolute.

"We have been contacted by several officers in the FANCI (national armed forces) and it is clear that not all the army supports Gbagbo," said one source close to Soro.

One Ivorian journalist specialising in military affairs said these pro-Ouattara elements "haven't yet shown themselves for tactical reasons".

"It's the army that will determine the real winner between Gbagbo and Ouattara," he said. "It's as divided as the politicians are."

Nevertheless, Gbagbo still seems to have undisputed control of two key units -- the well-armed and motivated Presidential Guard and the Cecos anti-robbery squad -- making any attempt to unseat him a risky undertaking.

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