Gbagbo forces fire at UN experts amid arms embargo fury

UNITED NATIONS (AFP) – Forces loyal to Ivory Coast strongman Laurent Gbagbo on Monday opened fire on UN sanctions experts who tried to check on a suspected breach of the international arms embargo of the country, a UN source said.

UN chief Ban Ki-moon accused Belarus of breaking the embargo by sending three attack helicopters and other equipment to Gbagbo, who refuses to hand over power to internationally-recognized president Alassane Ouattara. Belarus denied the charges.

Inhabitants of the Abobo district in Abidjan flee the area past a United Nations armoured vehicle following fresh clashes between forces loyal to rival claimants for the presidency on February 27. AFP

Tensions were further heightened when Gbagbo supporters briefly kidnapped two Ukrainian UN workers, the UN said.

Ban, who has expressed fears that Ivory Coast could be sliding back into civil war, called on the UN Security Council to meet urgently to discuss the reported arms deliveries.

Experts from the UN Ivory Coast sanctions committee and an officer from the UN peacekeeping mission had gone to Yamoussoukro airport to check on the helicopters, a UN source told AFP.

The group "were forced to withdraw when fired upon" by the Gbagbo followers, the source added, speaking on condition of anonymity. No injuries were reported.

The UN secretary-general said one Belarus helicopter reportedly arrived in Ivory Coast on Sunday night and two more were expected Monday.

At about the same time, Gbagbo youth loyalists kidnapped two Ukrainians who work for the UN mission in the country but freed them several hours later, UN officials said.

The two employees were abducted by young Gbagbo supporters near Abidjan's Port Bouet district. The youth group handed them over to Gbagbo's official security forces who released them to the UN, officials said.

Tensions have risen significantly in the west African nation in recent days, with increasing clashes between supporters of Gbagbo and Ouattara.

"This is a serious violation of the embargo against Ivory Coast, which has been in place since 2004," Ban said a statement released by UN spokesman Martin Nesirky.

Ban warned Belarus and Gbagbo that "appropriate action will be taken in response to the violation."

Belarus denied any knowledge of the helicopters. Foreign Ministry spokesman Andrei Savinykh told AFP: "Belarus has never violated Security Council sanctions" and has an "efficient system to control weapons exports."

Gbagbo's administration rejected the UN weapons claims as a "a lie to justify an attack against the government of president Laurent Gbagbo," spokesman Ahoua Don Mello said.

The 15 UN Security Council nations held informal talks over plans for an urgent meeting, but it was not clear when one would be held. Diplomats said the council would need more "solid" information on the deliveries.

More than 10,500 UN peacekeepers now operate in Ivory Coast, some protecting Ouattara's headquarters, and the head of the UN mission has said the troops face growing hostility from Gbagbo forces. The strongman's followers shot and wounded three peacekeepers at the weekend.

Ouattara was declared winner of a November 28 presidential election but Gbagbo refused to recognize the result.

A high-level African Union mediation panel is due to give its verdict on the deadlock soon.

Other news