By Dave ClarkABIDJAN: The United Nations sternly warned Ivory Coast strongman Laurent Gbagbo yesterday not to allow an attack on the hotel where its peacekeepers are defending Alassane Ouattara's shadow government.
UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon warned UN troops would resist any assault, which he said could trigger civil war in the fragile West African state, after Gbagbo's most notorious lieutenant vowed to storm his rival's base.
In a statement, a "deeply concerned" Ban said UNOCI force would "use all necessary means to protect its personnel, as well as the government officials and other civilians at these premises of the hotel".
Also in New York, the UN envoy for the prevention of genocide, Francis Deng, said reports that the Abidjan homes of Gbagbo opponents "had been marked to identify their ethnicity were extremely worrying".
Gbagbo's notorious "Street General", Minister for Youth Charles Ble Goude, on Wednesday urged Ivorian youths to rise up after the New Year to seize control of Ouattara's headquarters in the waterfront Golf Hotel resort.
"From Jan 1, I, Charles Ble Goude and the youth of Ivory Coast are going to liberate the Golf Hotel with our bare hands," the political showman turned minister declared on Wednesday, to a cheering crowd of hardline supporters.
The call came as the United Nations' chief peacekeeper accused Gbagbo's state media of "inciting hatred" against UN troops and as West African leaders promised to try once more to negotiate a peaceful settlement to the crisis.
"This is only the latest provocation from Gbagbo's camp," Ouattara's spokeswoman Anne Ouluto told AFP by telephone from the hotel, where Ivory Coast's internationally-recognised leader is effectively cornered.
"It's a false pretext to attack United Nations forces and create a genuine incident," she said, of Ble Goude's declaration.
The once-plush resort is protected by a small contingent of lightly-armed former rebel fighters known as the "New Forces" and 800 United Nations troops equipped with armoured vehicles and re-supplied by helicopter.
It is surrounded by Gbagbo's well-armed regulars, the Ivory Coast Defence and Security Forces (FDS), but Ouattara's camp is more concerned about Ble Goude's threat to send thousands of unarmed youths to storm the hotel.
Ouloto claimed that Ble Goude aimed to "replay the scenario of 2004", when his "Young Patriot" supporters marched on a hotel defended by French troops and provoked clashes in which at least 50 demonstrators were killed.
"They know that the United Nations will have no choice but to protect the president and to protect the president's election victory, so it's provocation. It's a pretext to create an incident," Ouluto said.
Ouattara's camp fears Gbagbo is plotting a large-scale massacre of his opponents in order to cling on to power and that he wants to tarnish the reputation of UN troops by forcing them to employ deadly force.
Gbagbo insists that he is the legitimate leader of Ivory Coast, and accuses France, the United States and the United Nations' UNOCI peacekeeping mission of conspiring with Ouattara to falsify the election results.
Gbagbo warned yesterday he would not leave power voluntarily and said international pressure for him to quit threatened to push the country to civil war.
"I do not believe at all in a civil war. But obviously, if the pressures continue as they have, they will push towards war, confrontation," he said in an interview with TV channel Euronews.
Gbagbo ruled out standing down voluntarily, saying that his departure did not provide "a guarantee that it would bring peace".
Supporters like Ble Goude have branded the Golf Hotel a rebel base, and both FDS troops and civilian protesters have begun to harass UN patrols in Abidjan, which is still firmly under the control of Gbagbo's forces.
Against this background, Ouattara's New Year's message to the country was downbeat, noting that "2010 ends in sadness and dismay", but he urged his followers to remain patient and minimise any further loss in human life.
"We must act quickly. We must learn from everything that has happened. It is time to act and get out of this situation," Ouattara told West African leaders, through an interview with reporters after his speech.
Both Gbagbo and Ouattara claim to have won last month's Ivorian election, but only the latter has been recognised as president by the world community, including the ECOWAS regional group and the United Nations.
Hopes for a negotiated settlement have come to rest on the west African leaders represented by ECOWAS, who have voted to authorise military intervention if Gbagbo refuses to step aside for Ouattara.
A delegation of three West African presidents came to Abidjan on Tuesday to deliver their ultimatum, but left without a clear result, and have since said they are still pressing for a peaceful solution.
In the latest sign of cold feet, Ivory Coast's neighbour Ghana said it was not planning to contribute any troops to an ECOWAS mission.
The head of the United Nations human rights team in Ivory Coast said the number of killings linked to the crisis had plunged to six over the past week against 176 the week before, but said tension remained.