Nicholas Vinocur and Tim Cocks
PARIS/ABIDJAN, Ivory Coast (Reuters) - U.N. peacekeepers in Ivory Coast will be reinforced by 2,000 soldiers and have received two combat helicopters to face worsening violence between rival political factions, a U.N. official said.
The 8,000-strong United Nations force is trying to keep a stand-off between rival presidential claimants Laurent Gbagbo and Alassane Ouattara from tipping into a civil war, as clashes between factions loyal to each side grow increasingly violent.
Gbagbo's Defense minister Alain Dogou repeated calls at a press conference for all U.N. troops to leave and said it would not cooperate with them, accusing them of arming rebels. "They have become a party in Ivory Coast's conflict," he said.
Some 800 peacekeepers are stationed around a hotel in Abidjan where Ouattara, widely recognised as the winner of an election last year, has been holed up for three months hoping that economic sanctions will weaken Gbagbo's grip on power.
"What we are seeing is clearly an escalation of violence," Choi Young-jin, a U.N. representative in Abidjan, told the Liberation newspaper in an interview published on Saturday.
"Since February 19, incidents have gotten more serious." On Thursday, Ivorian security forces loyal to presidential claimant Gbagbo shot dead seven women protesters, and the U.N. said at least 365 people had been killed in violence in the wake of a disputed general election last November 28.
Video footage of the all-women protest in the northern Abidjan suburb of Abobo, broadcast on I>tele news channel, shows women screaming after gunshots are heard and at least two bloodied bodies on the road. An armored vehicle marked "police" is visible driving toward them in the background.
Gbagbo's interior minister Emile Guirieoulou, in the same press conference, denied that any Ivorian security forces had fired on the women's protest and he denounced the international media for spreading lies and "intoxication."
When told about the video, he said he had not seen it.
International cocoa futures regularly have been breaking new 32-year highs on supply fears due to the violence.
Young-jin said he was sending frequent patrols through the Abobo suburb. "We need to do everything we can to stop someone who wants to massacre civilians from making it happen," he said.
As the conflict grows more entrenched, Young-jin said he had not yet called on a French military unit stationed nearby.
But he did need to beef up his force: "We are waiting on reinforcements of 2,000 blue helmets, and two of the three armed helicopters that we ordered have arrived," he said.
Staying in control of the skies above Abidjan through air power was crucial to ensuring that the fragile situation did not degenerate into bloodshed, he added.
When asked if he thought a political outcome to the crisis was possible, Young-jin was pessimistic: "Since the beginning we've noted deep differences between the two parties. It will be very difficult to find common ground between the rivals."
In the northern Ivory Coast stronghold of Bouake, power and water service was restored on Saturday, after being cut for a week during clashes, witnesses and residents said.
Gbagbo's government did not officially comment on the power cuts to the north, but his troops seized the electric distribution company last month and a U.N. source said they had ordered power to be cut to the north during the fighting.
Running water was cut because the pumps are electric.
African leaders had been due to arrive in the world's top cocoa grower to propose a solution to the standoff, but called it off on Friday. They instead invited Ouattara and Gbagbo to the next African Union summit, where a solution to the crisis would be proposed. Expectations for success are not high.
African Union president Jean Ping was in Abidjan on Saturday, where he met with Gbagbo and Ouattara.
"He's carrying a message to them. It's not yet public," an AU official in Ivory Coast, who asked not to be named, said.
(Editing by Michael Roddy)