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UN envoy sees hopeful signs of "beginning of end" to violent crisis in Côte d'Ivoire

The top United Nations official in Côte d’Ivoire has said he sees “promising signs” pointing to “the beginning of the end” of the crisis stemming from former president Laurent Gbagbo’s refusal to leave office despite his UN-certified defeat by opposition leader Alassane Ouattara.

In a weekend interview with Radio France Internationale, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s Special Representative Y. J. Choi cited the impact of financial sanctions on Mr. Gbagbo’s ability to pay civil servants and soldiers and the unwillingness of most of the army to fight for him in the violence which has already claimed some 400 lives since the crisis began in December.

“There are promising signs that show that the beginning of the end in is view,” he said. “The people have faith in the election results and therefore do not support president Gbagbo’s camp. Second sign, the financial measures are beginning to have an effect. President Gbagbo’s camp is beginning to have difficulty in paying its civil servants and even its soldiers.”

Even in Abidjan, the commercial capital, where his loyalists have attacked civilians and UN peacekeepers, the situation is very worrying for Mr. Gbagbo’s camp, Mr. Choi said, since the north of the city is completely under the control of forces favourable to President Ouattara, who has been recognized by the UN, African Union (AU) and other regional organizations and States as the legitimate president.

The run-off elections in November were meant to be the culmination of UN-backed efforts to reunite the country after it was split by civil war in 2002 into a rebel-held north and a Government-controlled south.

Mr. Choi dismissed the Gbagbo camp’s claim to have launched an offensive against Abidjan’s Abobo neighbourhood on Saturday. “There was not really an offensive; it’s Gbagbo camp propaganda,” he stressed. “In effect, we [UN peacekeepers] were all over Abobo with our patrols. Only our helicopter was in the air all day. There were some little clashes to the south of Abobo, that’s all. So it’s rather a defensive action by the Gbagbo camp.”

Asked about claims that the 10,000 troops in the UN peacekeeping mission in Côte d’Ivoire (UNOCI) are not doing enough to protect the civilian population since 400 people have already died, Mr. Choi noted that it was the primary responsibility of the Ivorian authorities to protect civilians and that if the Gbagbo camp has failed in that it must be held accountable.

But, he added: “We have always managed to arrive wherever there is a danger of a civilian massacre, as in Abobo.”

Earlier assumptions that the Gbagbo camp has a large military force “do not quite correspond to the facts since that majority of the military are not prepared to fight,” Mr. Choi said. “You can count some 50,000 in the military who are moderate and, 5,000 who are worse and the special forces [who are prepared to fight].”

He added that one could sense very clearly that the Gbagbo loyalists have lost much of their enthusiasm. “Their morale is not very high,” he noted. At the beginning [of the crisis], they were very active, but these days there’s virtually nothing.”

As for Mr. Gbagbo’s recent ban on UN overflights of Abidjan by plane or helicopter, Mr. Choi stressed that the UNOCI takes its orders from the Security Council, not from Mr. Gbagbo. “We take precautions,” he said. “We are determined to maintain our freedom of movement in the air, our control of air space.”

After rejecting the election results Mr. Gbagbo demanded the withdrawal of UNOCI, which has been supporting the stabilization efforts over the past seven years. The Security Council not only rebuffed this but also authorized the immediate deployment of 2,000 additional troops and three armed helicopters.

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