Ivory Coast faced a sharply increased risk of violence Thursday as strongman Laurent Gbagbo's diehard supporters stepped up their threats against his rival Alassane Ouattara and the United Nations.
Gbagbo's notorious "Street General", Minister for Youth Charles Ble Goude, urged Ivorian youths to rise up from Saturday to storm Ouattara's UN-defended hotel headquarters in what he described as a "bare-handed" assault.
The call came as the United Nations' chief peacekeeper accused Gbagbo's state media of "inciting hatred" against UN troops and as West African leaders promised to try once more to negotiate a peaceful settlement to the crisis.
"This is only the latest provocation from Gbagbo's camp," Ouattara's spokeswoman Anne Ouluto told AFP by telephone from Abidjan's Golf Hotel, where Ivory Coast's internationally-recognised leader is trapped.
"It's a false pretext to attack United Nations forces and create a genuine incident," she said, of Ble Goude's declaration.
The waterfront resort is protected by a small contingent of lightly-armed former rebel fighters known as the "New Forces" and 800 United Nations troops equipped with armoured vehicles and re-supplied by helicopter.
It is surrounded by Gbagbo's well-armed regulars, the Ivory Coast Defence and Security Forces (FDS), but Ouattara's camp is more concerned about Ble Goude's threat to send thousands of unarmed youths to storm the hotel.
Ouloto claimed that Ble Goude aimed to "replay the scenario of 2004", when his "Young Patriot" supporters marched on an hotel defended by French troops and provoked clashes in which at least 50 demonstrators were killed.
"They know that the United Nations will have no choice but to protect the president and to protect the president's election victory, so it's provocation. It's a pretext to create an incident," Ouluto said.
Ouattara's camp fears that Gbagbo is plotting a large-scale massacre of his opponents in order to cling on to power and wants to tarnish the reputation of UN troops by forcing them to employ deadly force.
Gbagbo insists that he is the legitimate leader of Ivory Coast, and accuses France, the United States and the United Nations' UNOCI peacekeeping mission of conspiring with Ouattara to falsify the election results.
Supporters like Ble Goude have branded the Golf a rebel base, and both FDS troops and civilian protesters have begun to harrass UN patrols in Abidjan, which is still firmly under the control of Gbagbo's forces.
"From January 1, I, Charles Ble Goude and the youth of Ivory Coast are going to liberate the Golf Hotel with our bare hands," the political showman turned minister declared Wednesday, to a cheering crowd of hardline supporters.
Against this background, Ouattara's new United Nations ambassador Youssoufou Bamba gave a stark warning Wednesday as he received his credentials from UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon in New York.
"We are on the brink of genocide, something should be done," he said.
And the chief UN peacekeeper, Alain Le Roy, accused Gbagbo's state media of "inciting hatred" against UN troops to turn the population against them and make their already dangerous mission impossible.
Both Gbagbo and Ouattara claim to have won last month's Ivorian election, but only the latter has been recognised as president by the world community, including the ECOWAS regional group, the United Nations and the European Union.
Hopes for a negotiated settlement have come to rest on the west African leaders represented by ECOWAS, who have voted to authorise military intervention if Gbagbo refuses to step aside for Ouattara.
A delegation of three West African presidents came to Abidjan on Tuesday to deliver their ultimatum, but left without a clear result, and have since said they are still pressing for a peaceful solution.
They are due to return to Abidjan on Monday for more talks and military action appears to have been put on the back burner for now while Gbagbo plays for time, but Ouattara's spokeswoman insists he is not disappointed.
"President Ouattara still has faith in ECOWAS," Oulotu said. "But it must be firm and this must really be their final approach."