Gbagbo forces fire at UN experts amid arms embargo fury

AFP , Tuesday 1 Mar 2011

Pro-Gbagbo forces increasingly hostile to UN workers fire on experts investigating alleged breach arms embargo as Gbagbo refuses to handover power

Forces loyal to Ivory Coast strongman, Laurent Gbagbo opened fire on Monday on UN sanctions experts who were investigating a suspected breach of the international arms embargo of the country, a UN source said.

UN chief Ban Ki-moon accused Belarus of breaking the embargo by sending three attack helicopters and other equipment to Gbagbo, who refuses to hand over power to elected and internationally-recognised president, Alassane Ouattara. Belarus denies the charges.

Experts from the UN Ivory Coast sanctions committee and an officer from the UN peacekeeping mission went to Yamoussoukro airport to check on the helicopters, a UN source told AFP.

The group "were forced to withdraw when fired upon" by Gbagbo followers, the source added, speaking on condition of anonymity. No injuries were reported.

The UN secretary-general said one Belarus helicopter reportedly arrived in Ivory Coast on Sunday night and two more were expected Monday.

At about the same time, tensions were further heightened when Gbagbo youth loyalists kidnapped two Ukrainians near Abidjan's Port Bouet district who work for the UN mission in the country, although they freed them several hours later, UN officials said.

Tensions have risen significantly in the West African nation in recent days with increasing clashes between supporters of Gbagbo and Ouattara.

"This is a serious violation of the embargo against Ivory Coast, which has been in place since 2004," Ban said a statement released by UN spokesman, Martin Nesirky.

The UN leader, who has expressed fears that Ivory Coast could be sliding back into civil war, and US President Barack Obama expressed concern about Ivory Coast at a meeting in Washington.

Ban called on the UN Security Council to meet to discuss the reported arms deliveries. The council's panel of experts on Ivory Coast sanctions met in New York and asked the UN mission for more information to confirm the reported deliveries.

Ban warned Belarus and Gbagbo that "appropriate action will be taken in response to the violation."

Foreign ministry spokesman, Andrei Savinykh, told AFP: "Belarus has never violated Security Council sanctions" and has an "efficient system to control weapons exports."

Gbagbo's administration rejected the UN weapons claims as "a lie to justify an attack against the government of president Laurent Gbagbo," spokesman Ahoua Don Mello asserted.

More than 10,500 UN peacekeepers now operate in Ivory Coast, some protecting Ouattara's headquarters, and the head of the UN mission has said the troops face growing hostility from Gbagbo forces. The strongman's followers shot and wounded three peacekeepers over the weekend.

Ouattara was declared winner of a 28 November presidential election, but Gbagbo refused to recognise the results.

A high-level African Union mediation panel is due to give its verdict on the deadlock soon.

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