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Ivory Coast violence escalates as mediation efforts stall

A resurgence of violence in Ivory Coast this weekend put a hold on African Union mediation efforts, but African leaders continue to resist international efforts to intervene further.

By Scott BaldaufStaff writer / February 28, 2011

Women pray as they face off against soldiers in an unauthorized protest calling for Laurent Gbagbo to step down, in the Treichville neighborhood of Abidjan, Ivory Coast, Monday, Feb. 28.

Rebecca Blackwell/AP

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Johannesburg, South Africa

An African Union team of five heads of state, charged with resolving the political crisis in Ivory Coast, seems to be extending its stay in the country beyond Tuesday as violence between the two well-armed sides increases and the chances of peaceful negotiation rapidly diminish.

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At least 300 people have been killed since the crisis began after the Nov. 28 election runoff between incumbent Laurent Gbagbo and rival Allasane Ouattara, the internationally recognized winner. Ivory Coast’s election commission declared Mr. Ouattara the victor by a 10 percentage-point margin, but Mr. Gbagbo rejected the results.

The constitutional court threw out a half-million votes in pro-Ouattara areas, and now some African leaders, such as African Union mediation team member South African President Jacob Zuma, have called the election results “inconclusive.”

Mr. Zuma initially proposed a powersharing agreement followed later by fresh elections. But as fighting spreads through the country, all talk of a powersharing agreement appears to be off the table.

Escalating the standoff's 'tit-for-tat' moves

Fresh gun battles, the latest in on-and-off violence ongoing since the election, erupted in the capital of Abidjan this weekend and front-line neighborhoods supportive of Ouattara have nearly emptied of residents. The United Nations reports that Gbagbo recently purchased attack helicopters from Belarus, a blatant violation of an arms embargo placed on Ivory Coast since the end of the country’s civil war in 2004.

The possession of helicopters would greatly tilt the balance of military power toward Gbagbo, since neither side currently has aircraft. Attack helicopters would potentially give Gbagbo the ability to attack Ouattara’s headquarters in the Golf Hotel and to inflict heavy casualties on civilian demonstrators.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon issued a statement Sunday night condemning the reported arms sale to Gbagbo. The UN “has learned with deep concern that three attack helicopters and related materiel from Belarus are reportedly being delivered at Yamoussoukro for Mr. Gbagbo's forces,” Mr. Ban said in a statement. "This is a serious violation of the embargo against Cote d'Ivoire, which has been in place since 2004."

“Obviously, we are quite concerned about those helicopters being used against the Golf Hotel and against Abobo neighborhood,” says Corinne Dufka, a senior researcher on West Africa for Human Rights Watch in Dakar, Senegal. “The helicopters make a breach of the arms control agreement and it gives Gbagbo the upper hand.”

Belarus has supplied vintage Soviet-era attack helicopters to other African nations in the past, most notably Uganda in the late 1990s to be used against the rebel movement, the Lord’s Resistance Army.

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