The United Nations has said that it will do everything it can to locate where human rights abuses have allegedly occurred in Ivory Coast following disputed presidential elections.
Human rights groups have warned that security forces loyal to incumbent Laurent Gbagbo, who refuses to cede power, have been abducting political opponents in recent weeks.
The UN also believes that up to 80 bodies may have been moved to a building nestled among shacks in a pro-Gbagbo neighbourhood. Investigators have tried to go there several times, and even made it as far as the building's front door before truckloads of men with guns showed up and forced them to leave. A second mass burial site is believed to be located near Gagnoa in the interior of the country, the UN said.
Gbagbo's government has repeatedly denied the existence of mass graves.
The UN has said the volatile West African nation faces a real risk of returning to civil war. A top ally of Alassane Ouattara, the man widely recognized as Ivory Coast's legitimate president, said this war has already begun.
"In any country that records more than 200 dead in five days, as the UN has certified, it's war. When a country experiences a massive flight of the population — more than 20,000 Ivorians who leave their country to seek refuge in a country like Liberia — it's war," Ouattara's prime minister, Guillaume Soro, told the Associated Press.
The UN has confirmed at least 173 deaths. In New York on Saturday, the UN said Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon spoke with Ouattara by telephone and assured him that the international community was working to try to end the stalemate in Ivory Coast.
Ban said he appreciated "the restraint and patience being shown even in the face of provocative acts" and reaffirmed the United Nations' "principled and unwavering position on upholding the election outcome" that should have put Ouattara in office.
The UN secretary-general also expressed alarm about reports of egregious human rights violations, and said the UN mission in Ivory Coast is doing everything it can to gain access to areas where such violations are being reported, both to document any abuses and prevent others from occurring. Ban also took note of Ouattara's call for International Criminal Court investigation of alleged rights violations.
Human rights groups accuse incumbent Gbagbo's security forces of abducting and killing political opponents, though Gbagbo allies deny the allegations and say some of the victims were security forces killed by protesters.
Gbagbo gave an address late Friday on state television in which he accused the international community of mounting a coup d'etat to oust him and said Ivorians were being subjected to international hostility.
"No one has the right to call on foreign armies to invade his country," Gbagbo said. "Our greatest duty to our country is to defend it from foreign attack." Soro said Saturday that Gbagbo would only leave power by force and that the international community will have to intervene with "legitimate force" to protect democracy in Africa. He dismissed Gbagbo's offer to invite an international investigation into the country as a delay tactic.
Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan, who also holds the rotating presidency of ECOWAS, the Economic Community of West African States, is due in Abidjan on Monday to negotiate Gbagbo's departure. ECOWAS threatened to use military force to remove Gbagbo if he doesn't leave freely, but failed to persuade him to go into exile when its first delegation came to Ivory Coast on Monday.
The United Nations had been invited by all parties to certify the results of the 28 November presidential runoff vote. The UN declared Ouattara the winner, endorsing the announcement by the country's electoral commission. But Gbagbo has refused to step aside for more than a month, defying international condemnation and growing calls for his ouster.
The European Union said late Friday that it had approved sanctions on 59 more people, in addition to 19 already sanctioned last week, including Gbagbo and his wife. Gbagbo and about 30 of his allies also face US travel sanctions, though such measures have typically failed to reverse illegal power grabs in Africa in the past.
West African leaders have said they are prepared to use military force to push Gbagbo out, but are giving negotiations more time for now. For many, the credibility of the international community is at stake if it is unable to ensure that Ouattara takes power.
Gbagbo points to Ivory Coast's constitutional council, which declared him president after throwing out more than half a million votes from Ouattara strongholds. The council invalidated election results in those areas, citing violence and intimidation directed at Gbagbo supporters.
The top UN envoy in Ivory Coast has disputed that assessment.
Ivory Coast was divided into a rebel-controlled north and a loyalist south by a 2002-2003 civil war, and the long-delayed presidential election was intended to help reunify the nation. However, tensions over the outcome have sparked violence including several attacks on UN peacekeepers.
Ivory Coast, the world's top cocoa producer, was officially reunited in a 2007 peace deal. However, Ouattara still draws his support from the northern half of the country, where residents feel they are often treated as foreigners within their own country by southerners.
Colonel Mohammed Yerima, director of defense information for the Nigerian military, said that defense chiefs from the 15-nation regional bloc ECOWAS met Friday to begin strategising what sort of assault they'd use if talks fail. But his comments appeared to suggest no such attack was imminent, as he said the plans would only be presented to ECOWAS leaders in Mali in mid-January.