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As Ivory Coast stalemate worsens, so do the chances of military intervention

Although the West African regional body, ECOWAS, has threatened to use force to remove incumbent President Laurent Gbabgo, nobody wants to ignite a second civil war in Ivory Coast.

By Drew HinshawCorrespondent / January 18, 2011

Ivory Coast President Laurent Gbagbo waits to meet Kenya's Prime Minister Raila Odinga (not pictured) to discuss the post-electoral situation at the presidential palace in Abidjan, on Jan. 17.

Thierry Gouegnon/Reuters

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Dakar, Senegal

At least 247 people have died since Ivory Coast's Nov. 28 election, which was supposed to end a 12 year conflict in the world's top cocoa producer. At least 49 people have disappeared, and those whisked away to secret prisons may number in the hundreds.

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Those are the latest numbers from a United Nations mission that has been firebombed, shot at, and increasingly understood as an occupying army by defenders of Laurent Gbagbo, the renegade president who has escalated his refusal to concede electoral defeat into a once-in-a-generation-battle for the sovereignty of this former French colony.

And last week, the UN announced from Geneva that its agents have caught word of – but been blocked from visiting – a third mass grave, this one stuffed with 80 bodies buried less than 50 miles from the Liberian border; a line that 25,000 everyday Ivoirians have crossed since November, searching for a country where sporadically violent house searches, attacks on UN convoys, and tire-fire road blocks manned by gun-waving extortionists aren't the new norm.

"The question now being discussed within the UN is the urgency of military intervention, not only to protect UN peacekeepers," said UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay, who tried Rwandan war criminals in the 1990s.

Will foreign forces intervene?

Military intervention is the question now being discussed all over West Africa, actually.

In December, ECOWAS – the 15-country union of West African states – signed off on "the use of legitimate force" to remove Gbagbo if the former history professer can't pick a sunny spot in Nice or Nigeria to while away his retirement.

The bloc has 6,500 troops ready to snatch Gbagbo from his presidential bed, but you need not mingle in a pro-Gbagbo Abidjan rally or interview a pro-government militia leader in the country's west to imagine how even a well-executed kidnapping operation could ignite a second gruesome civil war in this, the region's third most populous country.

An ECOWAS attack would lead to a "Third World War," threatened Charles Blé Goudé, histrionic agitator-general of the government-backed Young Patriots militia, notorious for its Kristallnacht-esque attacks on foreigners and foreign-run institutions.

Which is perhaps why Ghanaian President John Atta Mills announced on Jan. 7 that his nation would not participate in any military invasion of its western neighbor. To his credit, he is probably securing the safety of more than one million Ghanaians who live and make their daily bread in neighborhoods like Abidjan's Ghana Town.

But such prudence pits Mr. Mills (whose party denies that he received campaign contributions from Gbagbo in 2008) against Senegalese President Abdoulaye Wade, the 84-year-old grandfather figure in the region lobbying hard to keep the military option open.

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