WASHINGTON, Dec 22 (Reuters) – The international community may bolster the U.N. peacekeeping force in the Ivory Coast to head off any potential challenge by supporters of President Laurent Gbagbo, the U.S. State Department said on Wednesday.
State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said Washington was discussing moves to strengthen the peacekeeping effort with France, Ivory Coast’s former colonial ruler, and neighboring African countries.
“We’re just having discussions, who might contribute forces and how they might go in to augment the U.N. peacekeeping force. Decisions have to be made on that and they haven’t been made yet,” Crowley said at a news briefing.
“It could be that that kind of reinforcement would be another way to send a clear message to President Gbagbo.” Gbagbo has refused to quit after a Nov. 28 election that African countries and Western powers say was won by challenger Alassane Ouattara, sparking a political crisis that has killed 50 people and threatens to reignite the country’s civil war.
Ouattara’s designated prime minister told French television on Wednesday that “it is obvious the only solution to the crisis is the use of force.” The U.N. Security Council on Monday voted to extend its UNOCI Ivory Coast peacekeeping mission for another six months, dismissing Gbagbo’s demand that it should leave, and left open the option that it could be expanded.
France maintains a 900-member force in the country to support the 10,000-strong U.N. contingent.
Crowley said the United States believed the U.N. military mission had served as an important stabilizing force and counterbalance to Gbagbo, who still claims the loyalty of top military leaders.
“We can’t rule out that at some point in time he may challenge the presence of that force through force of his own,” Crowley said. “We would hope that it is not necessary to deploy force but by the same token we recognize the value of having peacekeepers there.” INCREASING PRESSURE
A senior U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the proposal to increase the peacekeeping force did not necessarily mean it would have a mandate to remove Gbagbo by force, but could help increase pressure on him to leave peacefully.
“We want to see President Gbagbo step aside,” Crowley said.
“We want to see him step aside peacefully and pave the way for a peaceful transition. We obviously have concerns about the threat of violence.” Security Council diplomats told Reuters that Russia, whose oil giant Lukoil is exploring for crude in Ivory Coast, had indicated it did not like the idea of boosting UNOCI and might not support it.
Moscow delayed the approval of a Security Council statement endorsing Ouattara, making clear during negotiations on it that Russia was uncomfortable with the idea of the United Nations taking sides what it sees as an internal dispute.
Crowley said the United States was focusing on countries within the West African ECOWAS bloc, which is dominated by regional power Nigeria.
U.S. President Barack Obama called Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan on Wednesday to discuss the crisis in Ivory Coast, the White House said in a statement.
Obama expressed support for the efforts of the Economic Community of West African States … and informed Jonathan about steps the United States has taken to reinforce peacekeeping efforts, the White House said.
The United States has joined the European Union in imposing travel sanctions on Gbagbo and his inner circle and is considering further steps such as financial sanctions.
Crowley said the United States was also closely watching reports of human rights abuses during the crisis.
He rejected Gbagbo’s proposal for an international investigation into the disputed election results, saying they had already been irrefutably vetted and that Alassane was the victor.
“President Gbagbo must accept the results of the election.
From our standpoint this is not negotiable,” Crowley said.