By Tim Cocks ABIDJAN (Reuters) - Pressure mounted on the United Nations Thursday to toughen its stance in Ivory Coast as a violent post-election conflict in the West African cocoa producer veered toward all-out civil war.
West African regional bloc ECOWAS said it would ask the U.N. to adopt a mandate to use military intervention as a "last resort," while France criticized the U.N.'s Ivorian mission for not doing enough to protect civilians so far.
"There is a U.N. force on the ground. I think it should, without doubt, play its role more efficiently because it has a mandate that allows it to use force if ... there is violence," French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe told France 2 television. The remarks were reported on France's RFI website.
Some 462 people have been killed since a disputed November election, which was claimed by incumbent leader Laurent Gbagbo despite U.N.-certified results showing that he lost to his rival Alassane Ouattara. Gbagbo says those results were rigged.
African states, the United States and the European Union have all recognized Ouattara as the legitimate winner of the poll, and ECOWAS has said repeatedly that force may be needed to remove Gbagbo from power.
"The (ECOWAS) leaders have agreed they will apply to the U.N. for a mandate for military intervention as a last resort," James Victor Gbeho, president of the ECOWAS Commission, told reporters on the sidelines of an ECOWAS summit.
Diplomats at the meeting said the aim of the appeal was to give the existing U.N. peacekeeping force in Ivory Coast more scope to prevent further civilian casualties.
U.N. diplomats and Ivory Coast's pro-Ouattara U.N. envoy have repeatedly called for a more robust application of the local U.N. mission's mandate, but U.N. officials say there are limits to what the force can do, precisely because of a concern to avoid civilian casualties.
A U.N. human rights officer said security forces loyal to Gbagbo were shelling neighborhoods seen as pro-Ouattara, and had killed 50 people in past week, bringing the confirmed death toll from the conflict to 462. Another 450,000 people have fled their homes.
"(Gbagbo's) special forces have been firing and launching explosives indiscriminately on part of the population suspected to be pro-Ouattara," Guillaume N'Gefa, a U.N. human rights official based in Abidjan told a news conference.
"We have registered ... from these indiscriminate attacks 50 deaths, including five children, and many dozens of wounded."
Gbagbo's government has repeatedly denied allegations its forces have used heavy weapons against civilians, and accuses the U.N. mission of siding with "rebels" trying to oust him.
The conflict and the impact of sanctions have strangled supplies of Ivorian cocoa exports, lifting prices for the raw material in chocolate on international markets.
Ouattara has been recognized as Ivory Coast's president by world leaders but Gbagbo, with the backing of much of the armed forces, has refused to stand down and has accused the international community of interfering in a sovereign matter.
The U.N. mission said earlier this week it was monitoring efforts by Gbagbo's camp to repair an MI-24 attack helicopter and ready some BM21 multiple rocket launchers, and would "take action" within its mandate against any attempt to use them.
ECOWAS also put out a statement condemning Gbagbo's camp for hate speech against West African immigrants, who Human Rights Watch (HRW) says have been killed by pro-Gbagbo youth militias.
(Writing by David Lewis, Tim Cocks and Richard Valdmanis; Editing by Elizabeth Fullerton)