Ivory Coast warns of civil war

UN peacekeeper in Abidjan, 24 Dec 10 The UN has 10,000 troops in Ivory Coast

Foreign intervention to oust Ivory Coast's incumbent leader Laurent Gbagbo could ignite a civil war, a spokesman for the president has warned.

West African leaders have warned of military action if Mr Gbagbo refuses to hand power to rival Alassane Ouattara.

But Ahoua Don Mello said such a move could spark an "interior war" due to foreign workers living in the country, AFP reports.

Mr Gbagbo has refused to step aside following November's disputed election.

Ivory Coast was "a country of immigration" from around the region, Mr Mello said.

"All these countries have citizens in Ivory Coast, and they know if they attack Ivory Coast from the exterior it would become an interior civil war," he said.

"Is Burkina Faso ready to welcome three million Burkinabe migrants back in their country of origin?" Mr Mello asked.

Millions of West African immigrants from poorer neighbouring states work in Ivory Coast's relatively prosperous cocoa-led economy.

'Call to step down'

On Friday, regional West African grouping Ecowas warned that unless Mr Gbagbo conceded power it would use "legitimate force" to remove him.

Three West African presidents - from Benin, Sierra Leone and Cape Verde - are due to travel to the country on Tuesday to personally urge Mr Gbagbo to quit, Benin's foreign minister said.

Map

The BBC's John James, in Abidjan, says that after calls from the US and French presidents, this personal visit will represent the final notice for Mr Gbagbo, whose hold on power is diminishing by the day.

On Sunday, Switzerland's foreign ministry said it had grounded an aircraft belonging to Mr Gbagbo at Basel-Mulhouse airport - jointly administered by Switzerland and France - for several days.

French Foreign Ministry spokesman Bernard Valero said the plane was "demobilised" at the airport at the request of Ivory Coast's "legitimate authorities", AP reports.

Some 14,000 people have already fled to neighbouring Liberia following November's disputed election results, and the UN says it is prepared for a total of 30,000 refugees in the region.

The UN has said at least 173 people have died in violence already.

Most of those fleeing are supporters of Mr Ouattara, who is recognised internationally as the new president. He and his cabinet are based at a hotel in Abidjan under the protection of UN troops.

Mr Gbagbo has rejected widespread calls to step down, citing vote rigging in northern areas.

He has demanded that UN and French troops leave the country and a close ally has even warned that they could be treated as rebels if they did not obey the instruction.

The UN, which has 10,000 peacekeepers in the country, rejected the call.

The election was meant to unite the country after a civil war in 2002 split the world's largest cocoa producer in two, with the predominantly Muslim North supporting Mr Ouattara and the mainly Christian south backing Mr Gbagbo.

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