Ivory Coast's crisis creates embassy quandary

AP News
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Posted: Mar 19, 2011 12:37 PM
Ivory Coast's crisis creates embassy quandary

Most of the world believes Laurent Gbagbo lost Ivory Coast's presidential election months ago, but his large portrait still hangs in the Ivorian Embassy here. And his ambassador still reports for duty, even if he's becoming a diplomatic pariah.

Ambassador Noel Emmanuel Ahipeaud Guebo has been recalled by Ivory Coast's internationally recognized winner Alassane Ouattara, but some delicate diplomacy means the government in neighboring Mali has yet to ask Guebo explicitly to go.

Angry Ouattara supporters have even tried to occupy the embassy where Guebo works, but were forced out of the building by Malian police.

"They are taking care of me just like an egg," said Guebo, who stands out in diplomatic circles for wearing three-piece suits, snakeskin shoes and heavy gold rings.

The deepening political crisis in Ivory Coast, the region's economic powerhouse, is posing new diplomatic problems for its West African neighbors. Countries who outwardly support Ouattara's presidency are in most cases left with ambassadors still loyal to Ivory Coast's rogue leader who is clinging to office.

In January, a small group of Ouattara supporters also forced their way into the Ivorian embassy in Senegal and destroyed portraits of Gbagbo. Senegalese security forces intervened at the request of embassy authorities and are now guarding the embassy in Dakar.

With tensions so high, Ouattara has hesitated to formally appoint replacements for the Gbagbo ambassadors still hanging on. Neighboring countries also fear that thousands of their citizens living in Ivory Coast could face retaliation from violent Gbagbo supporters if pro-Gbagbo diplomats are expelled.

In the meantime, the Malian government is asking Guebo to keep a low profile and his requests to meet with the president have been declined. Officials here emphasize that just because the ambassador hasn't been asked to leave Mali doesn't mean Mali supports Gbagbo.

"This man is a bit of a problem for us, but we've been trying to deal with him with some flexible diplomacy," said a senior Malian official at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, who did not want to be named because of the sensitivity of the issue.

Guebo's presence also poses a quandary for other diplomats working in Bamako, especially those from the European Union which has imposed sanctions against Gbagbo and many of his allies.

"We would always be friendly with him when we meet him at various events, but I'd try to stay away from talking politics," said one European ambassador who did not want to be named as he was not authorized to speak to the media. "These days he wouldn't be invited to any of the national days at the European or the American embassies. After all he represents a government we don't recognize."

It's a similar problem in Congo, where the Ivorian ambassador is also a Gbagbo loyalist.

"I have asked that until there is a definitive end to the crisis in his country that he not conduct any diplomatic activities and that he not be in contact with any Congolese officials," said Congolese Foreign Minister Alexis Thambwe Mwamba.

Countries such as France, the UK, Canada and the United States have all asked Gbagbo appointed ambassadors to leave their capitals and have recognized new ambassadors named by Ouattara instead.

But things are a bit more complicated within West Africa, where governments fear a backlash. More than 400 people have been killed in Ivory Coast since the Nov. 28 vote, most of them Ouattara supporters.

"There are so many Malians living in Ivory Coast who could be potential targets for Gbagbo supporters. One wrong jest, one hostile word could put our citizens in danger," said the Malian Foreign Affairs official.

Jacques Kouassi Benie, the man who represents Ouattara's political party in Mali, says it's a problem across Africa.

"France and other Western countries can take a more aggressive stance because they have the resources to look after their citizens in Ivory Coast," he said. "If the worst comes to the worst they can evacuate them. But African countries don't have those sort of means at their disposal."

The embassy in Mali is still operating more or less normally. Ivorians still turn up daily to hand in forms for new identity cards and passports, even if some Ouattara supporters are boycotting the embassy's services. The ambassador insists Gbagbo legally won the election and is staying put.

"I recognize the Malian government is in a delicate position that's why I'm keeping a low profile," Guebo says. "I have an obligation not to embarrass the Malian government."

In the driveway sits his large sparkling four-wheel-drive with a little Ivorian flag on the hood.

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Associated Press writers Anne Look in Dakar, Senegal; and Saleh Mwanamilongo in Kinshasa, Congo contributed to this report.