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Ivory Coast government defiant amid claims of human rights abuses

By the CNN Wire Staff
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Ivory Coast election crisis
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • NEW: Sec. of State Clinton condemns the violence, urges Gbagbo to step down
  • A key minister insists that Gbagbo is the rightful president of the Ivory Coast
  • Backers of Alassane Ouattara are no longer "the peaceful opposition," he says
  • The U.N. Human Rights Council convenes, amid reports of torture and mass graves

(CNN) -- The ruling Ivory Coast government remained defiant Thursday, insisting that incumbent President Laurent Gbagbo should stay in power and that his supporters have acted justly despite a global outcry.

International critics have questioned his legitimacy and harshly condemned purported human rights abuses committed by his backers.

Between last Thursday and Tuesday, said Kyung-wha Kang, the U.N. deputy high commissioner for human rights, human rights officers "have substantiated allegations of 173 killings, 90 instances of torture and ill treatment, 471 arrests and detentions and 24 cases of enforced or involuntary disappearances." And she said that the actual numbers, in fact, may be much higher.

"Unfortunately, it has been impossible to investigate all the allegations of serious human rights violations, including reports of mass graves, due to restrictions on movement by U.N. personnel," she said. "Indeed, the special representative of the secretary-general was stopped at gunpoint as he sought to verify such allegations."

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While acknowledging "the situation is very, very difficult to live" in, Charles Ble Goude -- the nation's youth minister under Gbagbo -- said the government is "dealing with that."

He said Thursday that "the U.N. report is not correct," especially in its fingering fellow Gbagbo backers as being to blame for the recent violence.

Instead, he accused supporters of the president's political rival, Alassane Ouattara, of using weapons at what had been billed as peaceful rallies to attack soldiers. He also said Ouattara's backers burned a building that housed government troops.

"The consequences of that are, they are no more a peaceful opposition," said Goude.

The violence is fallout of the November 28 presidential runoff, after which the country's Independent Electoral Commission named Ouattara the winner. But its Constitutional Council invalidated those results and declared that Gbagbo won.

Goude said that he and others in Gbagbo's circle couldn't accept the electoral commission picking Ouattara, noting that it announced its decision in a hotel that was also being used as Ouattara's headquarters. While stressing a desire for talks on the issue, he said there is no intention for Gbagbo to forfeit a seat that he believes is rightfully his.

"Why do you want someone who won an election to step down?" Goude said. "The president has been elected."

The United Nations, the African Union and other international and regional bodies recognize Ouattara as the winner, but Gbagbo has refused to concede and step down.

On Thursday, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton issued a statement "condemning the growing violence, the grave human rights violations and the deterioration of security." She reiterated her assertion that Outtara was the nation's "legitimately elected and internationally recognized leader."

"The rights of the Ivoirian people can only be fully realized when democracy is respected and the rule of law restored," said Clinton.

The international community also has largely blamed Gbagbo's backers for inciting various abuses, which Kang said are reminiscent of violence that plagued the Ivory Coast in 2004.

"The political stalemate has been characterized by the use of excessive force by the supporters of ... Gbagbo to repress public gatherings and marches; harassment and intimidation; arbitrary arrest and detention; torture; disappearances; and extrajudicial killings," Kang said Thursday at a special session of the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva, Switzerland devoted to the political crisis in the Ivory Coast.

Kang said the U.N. Operation in Cote d'Ivoire, as the agency is known, using the nation's French name, is receiving 300 calls a day on a 24-hour line for reporting human rights abuses.

She called for removing restrictions imposed by "security forces and youth groups loyal to Mr. Gbagbo," claiming they had hindered the ability of the United Nations to deliver services and humanitarian aid.

"The deteriorating conditions and general insecurity have severely hampered economic and social activities for many Ivorians, especially the poorest, resulting in the serious infringement of economic and social rights," she said.

The watchdog group Human Rights Watch also said Thursday that security forces tied to Gbagbo had "disappeared" many political opponents and their backers, citing eyewitness reports from pro-Ouattara neighborhoods in Abidjan, the nation's largest city.

The group said that, since December 16, Gbagbo forces have dragged people away in nightly raids -- many of whom remain missing, with relatives unaware of where they are or if they are alive. Some witnesses reported seeing dead bodies, riddled with bullet holes.

Kang said Gbagbo has a "monopolization of many means of communication, including state television and radio, by those loyal to Mr. Gbagbo" and had banned foreign TV and radio broadcasters regarded as pro-Ouattara.

"Particularly alarming is the use of the national 'Radio and Television Ivoirienne' and some private newspapers to incite hatred and violence among the population and to disseminate false and inflammatory information against the United Nations. Incitement to hatred and violence are not permissible under international law. Indeed, such incitements can be punishable under international criminal law," she said.

While many nations and world bodies recognized Ouattara as Ivory Coast's rightful leader weeks ago, international pressure has increased significantly in recent days.

On Wednesday, a U.N. credentialing commission added pressure by approving a diplomatic maneuver that would further isolate the government of Gbagbo. The commission agreed to back a new ambassador to the body appointed by Ouattara.

U.S. State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley on the same day said that the United States and other countries were discussing with African nations the possibility of augmenting the existing U.N. force in the Ivory Coast.

However, he said it was unclear what a U.S. contribution could look like, whether it be forces of logistical support or something more indirect. Right now, these are just ideas, Crowley said.

The World Bank on Wednesday said it has halted lending and disbursing funds to the Ivory Coast and that the agency's office in the West African country has been closed.

The agency said it and the African Development Bank have backed the African Union and the Economic Community of West African States "in sending the message to Gbagbo that he lost the elections and he needs to step down."

"A peaceful and rapid resolution is critical" for Ivorians and the region, the bank said.

 
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