UN peacekeepers battle Ivory Coast attackers

UN peacekeepers battled attackers today before withdrawing from a western Ivory Coast town along with military observers and other UN staff.

UN peacekeepers battled attackers today before withdrawing from a western Ivory Coast town along with military observers and other UN staff.

Capt. Gilles Combarieu, a UN military observer, said Bangladeshi troops exchanged fire with attackers trying to enter their compound in the government-held town of Guiglo before evacuating all UN employees from the city.

“They had to defend themselves,” he said, adding that 200 to 300 UN peacekeepers and staff were headed north toward a more heavily guarded buffer zone separating government and rebel fighters.

Combarieu said he had no details on the number of dead or wounded. A doctor at Guiglo’s main hospital said two dead bodies with bullet wounds lay at the morgue and there were reports of three more corpses in the streets.

A third day of street protests roiled civil war-divided Ivory Coast’s government-held south as President Laurent Gbagbo’s supporters blocked streets across the west African nation’s main city.

Businesses shut down across Abidjan amid fears of a return to all-out violence in a country divided between government and rebel control after a 2002-2003 civil war.

While has officially banned street demonstrations, his security forces appeared to do little to disperse government supporters erecting burning barricades in streets and besieging UN offices across the cocoa-rich south.

The French Army Chief of Staff Gen. Henri Bentegeat called for UN sanctions against Ivory Coast, saying for three years both sides had shown they were unwilling to resolve the conflict.

France retains economic interests in Ivory Coast, its former colony, and has peacekeepers in the country alongside a UN force.

There were no reports of strife from the rebel-held north, where insurgent leaders accused Gbagbo of orchestrating the protests to undermine a new transitional government.

“It’s an insurrection against the transitional government organised by Gbagbo and (his political party) to bring power back into their hands,” said Sidiki Konate, a rebel spokesman.

A UN-backed international mediation group recommended that the country’s parliament’s expired mandate not be renewed. Gbagbo is leading a one-year government of national unity that has diminished his executive powers.

The parliament, filled with his supporters, is viewed as his last bastion of power and the mediators’ decision angered youth activists and Gbagbo’s backers who sent their followers into streets. The United Nations has so far bore the brunt of the protesters’ ire.

Yesterday, UN peacekeepers fired warning shots and tear gas grenades at protesters trying to breach the security walls of the world body’s headquarters in Ivory Coast.

In the western port city of San Pedro, protesters hurled firebombs into a UN office, though no injuries were reported. UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan condemned the violence, saying it threatened the nation’s fragile peace.

In Abidjan, menacing bands of Young Patriot militants, a group that supports Gbagbo, has spread out across the lagoonside city setting up makeshift roadblocks of burning tires and checkpoints – including on the main road to the international airport.

Annan condemned “the orchestrated violence directed against the United Nations, the population, as well as the inaction of some national authorities in responding to the situation,” UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric said at UN headquarters in New York.

“The secretary-general demands an immediate end to these attacks which contravene Ivorian law and seriously endanger the peace process as set out by the African Union and the Security Council,” Dujarric said.

The country has been on edge since Gbagbo cancelled planned October elections, blaming rebels who control the north and rebels’ failure to disarm. Afterward, the UN and the African Union endorsed a one-year extension of Gbagbo’s five-year mandate, which rebels and opposition leaders fiercely opposed.

A new prime minister, Charles Konan Banny, was chosen by the warring sides to shepherd the country toward elections within a year. In late December, he named a new 32-member national-unity government composed of rebel, opposition party and ruling party ministers.

Yesterday, Gbagbo’s ruling Ivorian Popular Front said it was withdrawing from the peace process and would no longer cooperate with Banny’s government. It also demanded UN forces leave.

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