The United Nations says refugees are fleeing Ivory Coast in their thousands as tensions continue to rise in the West African country following disputed elections last month.
Some Ivorians still support Gbagbo, despite international condemnation
Concerns that open conflict may erupt in Ivory Coast continue to rise as the UN says it has registered some 14,000 refugees who have fled to neighboring Liberia following the post-election violence in their country.
Ivory Coast, which suffered under a bloody civil war in 2002-03, has been on edge since the disputed presidential election on November 28. Much of the world, including the United Nations, has recognized challenger Alassane Ouattara as the legitimate winner, but the recalcitrant strongman Laurent Gbagbo has refused to relinquish power despite mounting calls for him to leave.
Soldiers have been deployed to guard rallies and streets
The United Nations UNOCI peacekeeping force has said at least 173 people have been killed in the past week and that security forces loyal to Gbagbo were committing "massive human rights abuses."
"The humanitarian needs are increasing for the mostly women and children refugees as well as for the villagers hosting them," the UN Human Rights Council (UNHCR) said in a statement on its website, adding that the number of refugees was growing by the day.
"Refugees are coming from western [Ivory Coast] and UNHCR staff on the ground say the refugees are having to walk several hours or even days before crossing … the natural border between their country and Liberia," the statement said.
"Some are arriving with severely swollen feet … some families said they had walked three to four days through the bush with little food," the UN agency said. "The growing number of new arrivals is impacting communities hosting the refugees. Food supplies are running short despite efforts by the government and humanitarian agencies to bring in more assistance."
The UNHCR added that it was witnessing instances of malnourished children and people suffering from malaria, respiratory infections and diarrhea.
Regional pressure ramped up
Forces loyal to Ouattara and Gbagbo have clashed in the streets
Leaders from the West African regional bloc ECOWAS have upped pressure on Gbagbo, saying that if he does not peacefully step down and hand power over to the internationally recognized winner of November's elections, Alassane Ouattara, they would have to intervene militarily.
The presidents of Benin, Sierra Leone and Cape Verde plan to travel to Ivory Coast on Tuesday to tell Gbagbo on behalf of ECOWAS "that he must step down as quickly as possible or face legitimate military force," Benin's Foreign Minister Jean Marie Ehouzou told Reuters news agency on Saturday.
The ECOWAS leaders expressed their "deep concern" for the post-election deaths and warned "all those responsible that they will face international trials for human rights violations at the earliest opportunity.”
The leaders said they were planning a meeting of defense chiefs of staff to develop plans for the possible use of force.
On Thursday, ECOWAS announced that its central bank was blocking funds to Gbagbo and that access would only be given to Ouattara's "legitimate government."
The UN, the US, the European Union and the African Union have all declared Ouattara the winner of the elections and his proposed ambassador has been recognized by the UN General Assembly.
Author: Darren Mara, Martin Kuebler (AFP, AP, Reuters)
Editor: Toma Tasovac