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Invoking Libya, African leaders call for more UN action in Ivory Coast

West African leaders called on the UN to take "all necessary action" to protect Ivorian civilians caught in a political standoff that has turned violent, but some others insist on an "African solution."

By Scott BaldaufStaff writer, Savious KwinikaCorrespondent / March 25, 2011

Youth supporting incumbent president Laurent Gbagbo receive military style training in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, Wednesday, March 23. Western African leaders have called on the United Nations to 'use all necessary means' to protect the lives of civilians in Ivory Coast, which seems poised to return to civil war because Gbagbo, refuses to step down from power.

Emanuel Ekra/AP

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Johannesburg and Pretoria, South Africa

A no-fly zone imposed on one African country, Libya, seems to be inspiring African leaders to call for intervention in the increasingly violent West African country of Ivory Coast.

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The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) has called on the United Nations to “use all necessary means” to protect the lives of civilians in Ivory Coast, which seems poised to return to civil war because the incumbent leader, President Laurent Gbagbo, refuses to step down from power after losing Nov. 28, 2010 elections to his rival, Alassane Ouattara.

The African Union, the UN, and the nations of ECOWAS have declared the elections free and fair and declared Mr. Ouattara the winner, but armed forces loyal to Mr. Gbagbo continue to control much of the southern half of the country, including Abidjan, which remains the country's power center despite no longer being the capital and has become a violently divided city. More than 450 civilians have been killed, mainly by pro-Gbagbo forces and militias, since the election and up to 1 million civilians have been forced from their homes by the fighting, according to the UN.

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In a statement issued by ECOWAS after its Thursday meeting, West African leaders requested that the UN Security Council "strengthen the mandate of the United Nations' Operation in [Ivory Coast], enabling the Mission to use all necessary means to protect life and property and to facilitate the immediate transfer of power to Mr. Alassane Ouattara."

The ECOWAS communiqué stopped short of calling specifically for a no-fly zone – like the one implemented in Libya that allows Western forces to shoot down any Libyan military aircraft that take to the skies to attack rebels or protestors – but the French government, in its own draft proposal submitted Friday to the UN Security Council, called for a ban on the use of heavy weapons such as artillery by Ivorian forces. Human rights groups say that pro-Gbagbo forces have shelled pro-Ouattara neighborhoods in Abidjan in recent weeks.

Mounting death toll

The growing attention to Ivory Coast is a welcome change for human rights activists who have watched with frustration as the death toll in Ivory Coast mounts, but international attention remains focused on the conflicts in Libya, Egypt, and Yemen and the aftermath of Japan's earthquake and tsunami. Efforts by the African Union to resolve the conflict, most recently in a fact-finding mission by five African presidents in early March, have all failed. Gbagbo still refuses to step down, as the AU has urged.

“The situation in Ivory Coast is falling into civil war,” said Souhayr Belhassen, president of the International Federation for Human Rights, in a recent statement. “The international community must act faster and stronger in order to ensure international humanitarian law and human rights are fully respected, and to prevent massive human rights violations.”

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