ABIDJAN, Ivory Coast – Allies of the man who the international community says won Ivory Coast's disputed presidential election called Sunday for a general strike that would last until the incumbent hanging on to power concedes defeat and leaves office.
It was the latest form of pressure to try to force Laurent Gbagbo from the presidency nearly a month after the United Nations said his political rival, Alassane Ouattara, won the runoff vote. Gbagbo has refused to leave despite international calls for his ouster, and West African leaders say they now will remove him by force if he fails to go.
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."
Djedje Mady, the head of Ouattara's electoral coalition, said it called on "all Ivorians and those who live in Ivory Coast and believe in peace and justice to cease all their activities on Monday, December 27, 2010, until Laurent Gbagbo leaves power."
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.
On Sunday, the interior minister appointed by Gbagbo accused the U.N. of only telling half the story. Emile Guirieoulou said that at least 36 of the victims were police or other security forces who "were targeted by gunfire coming from the protesters."
Guirieoulou also alleged that the thousands of refugees arriving in Liberia had fled violence perpetrated by rebels who support Ouattara. The U.N. refugee agency says at least 14,000 people have fled the violence and political chaos in Ivory Coast, some walking for up to four days with little food to reach neighboring Liberia. At least one child drowned while trying to cross a river.
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.
The U.N. certified 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.
For nearly a month, Gbagbo has now defied calls from the international community to concede defeat. West African leaders from the regional bloc ECOWAS late Friday threatened a military intervention if Gbagbo does not step down. On Sunday, Sierra Leone's information ministry said that three leaders from the region would pay him a visit.
"In the spirit of brotherliness in Africa, three presidents have been nominated by their colleagues to confront Mr. Gbagbo in Abidjan to encourage him to leave office without delay," the ministry said. "The three presidents can fly back with Mr. Gbagbo, as all ECOWAS countries are prepared to grant him asylum."
Gbagbo has shown few signs that he plans to go, though, and his security forces have been accused of being behind hundreds of arrests, and dozens of cases of disappearance and torture in recent weeks.
"They will explain to me how Alassane Ouattara was elected and I was not," Gbagbo said Sunday of the regional leaders who plan to visit him this week. "I suppose they will explain that to me. I am not looking to share power — I am looking for the truth."
In recent days, the United Nations has expressed alarm about the actions of men who are believed to be Gbagbo loyalists. The U.N. said Thursday that heavily armed forces allied with Gbagbo, joined by masked men with rocket launchers, were preventing people from getting to a village where the U.N. said "allegations point to the existence of a mass grave."
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.
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.