ABIDJAN, Ivory Coast – The United States approved travel sanctions on Laurent Gbagbo and 30 of his allies Tuesday as pressure mounted on the incumbent leader to step down following last month's presidential election that the international community says he lost.
Meanwhile, the U.N. refugee agency said that some 6,200 people already have fled the West African country's postelection violence, and regional leaders called on Gbagbo to "yield power with dignity without further delay."
The rebuke from neighboring nations carries added weight because Gbagbo's representatives have dismissed similar calls from former colonizer France and other Western nations as foreign interference.
The regional bloc, ECOWAS, also said Gbagbo's weekend demand that thousands of U.N. peacekeepers leave the volatile country "would further heighten tensions and worsen the plight of the vulnerable."
The U.N. has certified Alassane Ouattara as the winner of the Nov. 28 vote, and Gbagbo on Saturday ordered the nearly 9,000 U.N. peacekeepers leave immediately. The U.N. has refused to do so, and a Security Council resolution adopted unanimously Monday extended the force's mandate until June 30, 2011.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton has authorized travel sanctions against members of Gbagbo's government, a U.S. official said Tuesday.
William Fitzgerald, the U.S. deputy assistant secretary for African affairs, said the move initially concerns about 30 people, though he could not give their names, in accordance with U.S. law. He said the travel sanctions take effect immediately.
The children and close family members of Gbagbo backers can also be deported from the United States, for example if they are studying or interning there, he said. A senior adviser to Gbagbo confirmed earlier this month that Gbagbo's stepdaughters — the children of the first lady — are believed to be living in the Atlanta area.
There is also the further possibility of later trade sanctions against individuals, Fitzgerald said.
"All options are open for the United States, African countries and European countries," he said, speaking in French in a conference call Tuesday. "Pressure will be increased in the future. I can't say exactly what we are going to do."
Asked if a military option was possible, Fitzgerald repeated that "all options remain on the table" but said that U.S. troops would "probably not" get involved.
A day earlier, the European Union said it would impose an assets freeze and a visa ban on Gbagbo and his wife after a deadline for him to step down elapsed. Gbagbo spent years as an expatriate in France.
Sanctions, though, have typically failed to reverse illegal power grabs in Africa in the past.
Emile Guieroulou, Gbagbo's interior minister, said Monday that they were not threatened by the prospect of sanctions.
"The president Laurent Gbagbo doesn't go to Europe on vacation, so it's not even a real sanction," Guieroulou said. "Even if this costs us, we will not give in. It's the lives of the people of Ivory Coast that count for us."
The U.N. says more than 50 people have been killed in recent days in Ivory Coast, and that it has received hundreds of reports of people being abducted from their homes at night by armed assailants in military uniforms. U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay has cited growing evidence of "massive violations of human rights."
Amnesty International on Tuesday said that it has also received reports from eyewitnesses of people being arrested or abducted, both at home and on the streets, by security forces loyal to Gbagbo. In a report, the group said that bodies have been found in morgues and on the streets, and that violence and intimidation has not been confined to Abidjan.
"It is clear that more and more people are being illegally detained by security forces or armed militiamen and we fear that many of them may have been killed or have disappeared," said Salvatore Sagues, Amnesty International's West Africa researcher.
Fears also have risen that U.N. personnel and other foreigners could be targeted in violence as tensions mount over the election. Over the weekend, masked gunmen opened fire on the U.N. base in Ivory Coast, though no one from the global body was harmed in the attack. Two military observers were wounded in another attack. The U.N. also says armed men have been intimidating U.N. staff at their private homes.
Toussaint Alain, an adviser for Gbagbo, said he didn't believe soldiers or people close to Gbagbo would carry out such acts.
"The U.N. is trying to manipulate public opinion and is looking for a pretext for a military intervention," he told the AP in Paris. He blamed possible kidnappings on supporters of Gbagbo's opponent, disguised in military uniforms.
The U.N. refugee agency said Tuesday that 6,000 people already have fled to Liberia and another 200 to Guinea. UNHCR has been airlifting additional supplies to Liberia and Guinea from its emergency stockpile in Copenhagen to be ready to help up to 30,000 refugees.
Ivory Coast was once an economic hub because of its role as the world's top cocoa producer. A 2002-2003 civil war split the country into a rebel-controlled north and a loyalist south. While the country officially reunited in a 2007 peace deal, Ouattara still draws his support from the northern half of the country where he was born while Gbagbo's power base is in the south.
Gbagbo claimed victory in the presidential election only after his allies threw out half a million ballots from Ouattara strongholds in the north, a move that infuriated residents there who have long felt they are treated as foreigners in their own country by southerners.
Associated Press writers Angela Doland in Paris, John Heilprin in Geneva and Bashir Adigun in Abuja, Nigeria contributed to this report.