Gbagbo seizes Ivory Coast electric company

Ivory Coast's incumbent leader has seized the nation's electric company and its distribution centre.

Ivory Coast's incumbent leader has seized the nation's electric company and its distribution centre.

The latest move comes a day after Laurent Gbagbo's allies took over the regional central bank's offices in an attempt to retain their access to state coffers.

The national electricity company issued a statement today saying its central distribution centre had been seized by Mr Gbagbo's government for reasons of national security.

Mr Gbagbo, who the international community says lost November's presidential election, has refused to give up power.

His opponent, Alassane Ouattara, was certified the election winner by the United Nations, but remains confined to a luxury hotel by security forces loyal to Mr Gbagbo.

In a statement released today, the Central Bank of West African States (BCEAO) protested at Mr Gbagbo's decision to take over its operations in Ivory Coast, calling the move "a flagrant violation of international agreements".

The bank ordered all its offices in the country to be closed until further notice.

Soldiers and military police surrounded the bank's headquarters in the capital, Abidjan, yesterday.

Local press reports said safes at the bank were opened and that the cash stores on the premises were seized, though these accounts could not be independently verified.

While bank employees were ordered to report to work today, computer networks with the outside had been cut, preventing Mr Gbagbo's allies from being able to access funds, local press reports said.

"In the coming days, if the central bank remains closed, the commercial banks will not be able to operate," said Mr Ouattara's acting finance minister, Patrick Achi. "This will paralyse the economic activity in the country."

The Dakar, Senegal-based regional bank formally recognised Mr Ouattara as president in late December and ordered that Mr Gbagbo's access to state coffers be cut off.

Mr Gbagbo, however, continued to withdraw funds from state accounts until the bank's governor, a close Gbagbo ally, was forced to resign last weekend.

Mr Achi said that in the interim, Mr Gbagbo was able to withdraw $120m (€87.4m) illegitimately to keep his government functioning.

Mr Gbagbo then had the bank's Ivorian offices seized, but it appears the move was largely symbolic because Mr Achi said there was not a significant amount of money on the premises.

The Central Bank of West African States (BCEAO) regroups the treasuries of eight West African countries - Benin, Burkina Faso, Ivory Coast, Guinea-Bissau, Mali, Niger, Senegal and Togo.

Mr Ouattara, a former BCEAO and International Monetary Fund official, ordered a one-month moratorium on cocoa exports earlier this week, attempting to cut Mr Gbagbo off from another important source of revenue in the world's largest cocoa producer.

The two measures taken together strike a blow to Mr Gbagbo's ability to stay in power about two months after he was declared the loser of the presidential election by the electoral commission and the United Nations.

The constitutional council later overturned those results by invalidating more than half a million votes in Ouattara strongholds in the north and proclaimed Mr Gbagbo the winner.

Both men have set up governments in the meantime, but, despite Mr Ouattara's international support, he has been unable to wrest control of the country from Mr Gbagbo, who continues to control the army and security forces.

The West African bloc of states known as ECOWAS has threatened military invasion to oust Mr Gbagbo if negotiations fail, though several countries have since expressed reservations about using force and no deadline has been set.

Mr Ouattara's camp hopes that a financial squeeze could prevent Mr Gbagbo from being able to pay civil servants and army salaries, provoking a mass defection so that such a military operation would not be needed.

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