ABIDJAN, Ivory Coast — Fears of a regional military intervention grew Monday in Ivory Coast following a threat from West African neighbors to force out incumbent leader Laurent Gbagbo if he does not soon heed international calls to step down from power.
Dozens of people gathered outside the Nigerian Embassy in Abidjan, holding signs that read: "We don’t want a military intervention" and "Let Ivorians solve Ivorian problems." Nigeria has the strongest army in the region and is expected to play a major role if an operation is launched to oust Gbagbo.
Nigerians gathered outside the embassy said they feared they could be targeted in retaliatory violence if Nigeria and other neighbors intervene in the monthlong political crisis. Three presidents from the regional bloc ECOWAS are headed to Abidjan this week to confront Gbagbo before any intervention would go forward.
The U.N. declared that Alassane Ouattara won the presidential runoff election held nearly one month ago, but Gbagbo refuses to concede defeat and leave despite admonitions from the U.N., United States, European Union and the African Union.
Ouattara’s supporters called for a general strike to begin Monday to step up the pressure, but shops were open and it was business as usual in central Abidjan by midmorning.
In an interview with Associated Press Television News on Sunday, Gbagbo said he was not concerned about world opinion, insisting he was duly elected. He said of his detractors: "Maybe they do not want me, I admit it, but I am not looking to be loved by them. I respect and abide by the Ivorians’ vote."
The U.N. has said at least 173 people have been killed in violence over the vote, heightening fears that the country once divided in two could return to civil war. The toll is believed to be much higher, though, as the U.N. mission has been blocked from investigating other reports, including an allegation of a mass grave.
Gbagbo supporters say at least 36 of the victims were police or other security forces who were targeted by gunfire coming from protesters.
Gbagbo has been in power since 2000 and had already overstayed his mandate by five years when the long-delayed presidential election was finally held in October. The vote was intended to help reunify the country, which was divided by the 2002-2003 civil war into a rebel-controlled north and a loyalist south.
Instead, the election has renewed divisions that threaten to plunge the country back into civil war. While Ivory Coast was officially reunited in a 2007 peace deal, Ouattara still draws his support from the northern half of the country, where residents feel they are often treated as foreigners within their own country by southerners.
As part of a peace accord, the U.N. had been invited to certify the election results and declared Ouattara as the winner of the Nov. 28 runoff vote. But a Gbagbo ally overturned those results by throwing out half a million ballots from Ouattara strongholds in the north. The move angered people who had waited for years as officials settled who would be allowed to vote in the long-delayed election, differentiating between Ivorians with roots in neighboring countries and foreigners.
Gbagbo has shown few signs that he plans to hand over power, and his security forces have been accused of being behind hundreds of arrests, and dozens of cases of disappearance and torture in recent weeks.
While the threat of a military intervention creates pressure on Gbagbo, Africa security analyst Peter Pham said there are "serious doubts that ECOWAS has the wherewithal to carry it out."
"None of the ECOWAS countries has the type of special operations forces capable of a ‘decapitation strike’ to remove the regime leadership," said Pham, who is the senior vice president of the National Committee on American Foreign Policy in New York. "That leaves the rather unpalatable option of mounting a full-scale invasion of the sort that would inevitably involve urban fighting and civilian casualties."
Pham also said there is "little chance" that the U.N. would allow its peacekeepers to get involved in such an effort. "The precedent would make it very difficult to get future agreement for deployment of such missions by host countries," he said.
French troops in Ivory Coast are ready to intervene to protect French citizens there, but any decision about an international military intervention would need to come from the U.N. or the African Union, French Defense Minister Alain Juppe said Monday.
Diplomatic pressure and sanctions have left Gbagbo increasingly isolated, though he has been able to maintain his rule for nearly a month since the disputed vote because he still has the loyalty of security forces and the country’s military.
Even that, though, may disappear if he runs out of money to pay them. Gbagbo’s access to the state funds used to pay soldiers and civil servants has been cut off and only Ouattara’s representatives now have access to the state coffers.
Senior diplomatic sources, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue, say that Gbagbo only has enough reserves to run the country for three months.
Associated Press writer Clarence Roy-Macaulay in Freetown, Sierra Leone contributed to this report.