Ivory Coast pays government workers, AU mediators stall

Reuters News
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Posted: Mar 18, 2011 4:10 PM

By Tim Cocks and Laurent Prieur

ABIDJAN/NOUAKCHOTT (Reuters) - Ivory Coast's Laurent Gbagbo has paid over 60 percent of civil servant salaries, his government said on Friday, suggesting Western sanctions meant to starve him of funds and force him to leave have not had full effect.

The north of the country, which mostly supports Gbagbo's opponent Alassane Ouattara, remained without electricity and water services, but a week of clashes between supporters of the two rivals appeared to have eased.

African leaders called off a planned mediation trip and instead invited Ouattara and Gbagbo, as well as the head of the country's Constitutional Council, to the next AU summit, at which a solution to the crisis would be proposed.

The world's top cocoa grower has been paralyzed by Gbagbo's refusal to step down after a November election that internationally certified results showed Ouattara had won. The United Nations says at least 365 people have been killed and hundreds of thousands have fled their homes as a result.

Some 200,000 have left the Abidjan neighborhood of Abobo alone during days of urban warfare last week.

U.N. humanitarian chief Valerie Amos said in New York that the refugee situation was becoming "increasingly alarming," with more than 80,000 having reached Liberia and more expected in the coming days and weeks.

International cocoa futures have been regularly breaking new 32-year highs on supply fears due to the violence.

Gbagbo's government said in a statement late on Thursday that it had paid the salaries of more than 60,000 civil servants, or about 62 percent of the payroll.

As part of broader efforts to show the situation was under control, his government also opened the recently nationalized local unit of BNP Paribas, and customers rushed to withdraw cash, which has dried up as the banking sector collapsed in recent weeks.

There have been two days of relative calm in the main city Abidjan and elsewhere after outbreaks of fighting led to warnings of a return to full-blown civil war.

But a Reuters witness in the north, which has been run by rebels since a 2002-3 war, said the region remained without water and electricity, which were cut off on February 28.

"This situation is desperate," said student Thierry Konan, 30, who lives in the main rebel-held city of Bouake.

A U.N. source said the U.N. mission had been told that pro-Gbagbo forces had ordered the electricity company at the Kossou Dam, near the capital, Yamoussoukro, to cut power to the north.

"All the CNO (rebel-held center, north and west) zone is today in a state of acute humanitarian crisis," said Michel Zorro, special adviser to the rebel administration on humanitarian affairs. "All the hospitals, all the clinics are in a state of dysfunction. Women and children are dying."

The spokesman for Gbagbo's government was unavailable for comment, but said on Thursday it was having to reduce consumption of electricity due to sanctions imposed on it.

AFRICAN DIPLOMACY, DIVISIONS

In a sign that Gbagbo was worried about fuel supplies, state TV this week announced a ban on filling canisters with petrol.

The leaders of South Africa, Chad, Burkina Faso and Tanzania met in Mauritania on Friday for talks on Ivory Coast .

Expectations were low after divisions between African leaders over the crisis, and the panel of leaders scrapped plans to travel to Ivory Coast. They decided instead to present their proposal at a meeting in Nigeria, which is chairing the African Union's Peace and Security Council in March.

"The panel invites (Ouattara and Gbagbo) as well as the chairman of the Constitutional Council to participate in that meeting," the panel said in a statement.

No date was given for the next meeting.

The U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights warned that there was "increasing evidence that both sides are involved in human rights abuses, including rapes, abductions and killings."

The International Crisis Group think-tank has warned that the most likely scenario is a return to armed conflict that could drag in the armies of other countries, led by Burkina Faso, which has openly supported Ouattara as the elected president.

(Additional reporting by Charles Bamba in Bouake and Ange Aboa in Abidjan, Patrick Worsnip in New York and Laura MacInnis in Geneva; Writing by David Lewis; Editing by Kevin Liffey)