The United Nations has warned supporters of Ivory Coast incumbent leader Laurent Gbagbo not to attack the Golf Hotel where internationally recognized winner Alassane Ouattara has set up a shadow government under U.N. protection.
A pro-Gbagbo youth leader has said that Ouattara and his supporters have until Saturday to "pack up their bags."
U.N. spokesman Martin Nesirky said Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon is "deeply alarmed" by these comments.
Ban said Thursday an attack on the hotel could provoke widespread violence that could re-ignite civil war, and he called on those planning to participate in the attack to "refrain from such dangerous irresponsible action," Nesirky said.
Under a peace deal after the 2002-2003 civil war, the U.N. was tasked with certifying the results of the Nov. 28 election. The U.N. declared Ouattara the winner, echoing the country's own electoral commission chief. Gbagbo insists he won, pointing out that the Ivory Coast constitutional council declared him the winner. The council, which is led by a Gbagbo ally, did so after invalidating half a million ballots from Ouattara strongholds in the north.
The United States and other world powers have insisted Gbagbo hand over power to Ouattara. For many, the credibility of the international community is at stake if it is unable to ensure that Ouattara takes power.
Chaos in Ivory Coast, once a West African economic powerhouse with skyscrapers dominating this seaside commercial center, already has kept Gbagbo in power five years beyond his mandate.
The country's long-delayed presidential election was finally held in October. The vote was intended to help reunify the country, which was divided by the 2002-2003 civil war into a rebel-controlled north and a loyalist south.
Instead, the election has renewed divisions that threaten to plunge the country back into civil war. While Ivory Coast was officially reunited in a 2007 peace deal, Ouattara still draws his support from the northern half of the country, where residents feel they are often treated as foreigners within their own country by southerners.
Meanwhile, reports of dozens of bodies being dumped near a large forest have emerged as human rights groups warned that security forces loyal to Gbagbo were abducting political opponents after the disputed election.
Now the United Nations believes up to 80 bodies may have been moved to a building nestled among shacks in a pro-Gbagbo neighborhood. Investigators have tried to go there several times, and even made it as far as the building's front door before truckloads of men with guns showed up and forced them to leave.
Simon Munzu, the head of the U.N. human rights division, urged security forces Thursday to allow investigators inside. Gbagbo's government has repeatedly denied the existence of mass graves following violence over the disputed presidential runoff that has left at least 173 confirmed dead already.
A second mass burial site is believed to be located near Gagnoa in the interior of the country, the U.N. said. Those suspected victims are in addition to the 173 deaths already confirmed by the U.N. Gbagbo's allies say that several dozen of them are police or security forces killed by protesters.
The reports of mass graves raise new concerns about human rights abuses as Ivory Coast's neighbors discuss how to remove Gbagbo from power. Regional leaders initially threatened to consider military force if Gbagbo did not step down following a high-level delegation visit Tuesday.
ECOWAS, the Economic Community of West African States, has sent combat troops to several nations in the past two decades. Defense officials from the member states met Wednesday in Abuja, Nigeria, where the bloc is based.
However, the regional bloc instead decided to give negotiations more time, saying mediators would return to Ivory Coast next week.
U.N. spokesman Nesirky said that the U.N. operation in Ivory Coast has deployed a large number of soldiers and police officers to the Golf Hotel to protect Ouattara administration officials. He said those troops are authorized "to use all necessary means" to protect their own personnel, the officials at the hotel and any other civilians staying there.
Britain's Foreign Secretary William Hague said Friday the U.K. would support a United Nations-sanctioned military intervention by Ivory Coast's neighbors if negotiations fail to persuade president Laurent Gbagbo to hand over power.
Hague told BBC radio on Friday that Britain hopes Gbagbo can be persuaded to step down, or will go voluntarily following the freezing of his bank accounts.
Gbagbo "should not underestimate the determination of the international community," Hague said.
The warnings by the U.N. and U.K. follow the declaration by Charles Ble Goude that Ouattara's people must leave the Golf Hotel, where the recognized leader has been organizing a shadow government under U.N. protection.
Ble Goude, a fiery supporter of Gbagbo, reportedly said that Ouattara, whom the United Nations declared the winner of the Nov. 28 vote, and his prime minister "have until January 1, 2011 to pack their bags and leave the Golf Hotel."
"He who attacks Laurent Gbagbo will sorely regret it," the newspaper Le Temps reported Ble Goude as telling Gbagbo supporters in the Yopougon neighborhood, where a U.N. patrol was surrounded by a mob on Tuesday and one peacekeeper was wounded by a machete. "No one can remove our president from power."
Ble Goude is Gbagbo's minister of youth and employment, known as the "street general" for organizing a violent anti-French and anti-U.N. gang that terrorized the foreign population in Ivory Coast in 2004-2005. The beachside Golf Hotel is protected by some 800 blue-helmeted U.N. peacekeepers and hundreds of rebels loyal to Ouattara.
Ivory Coast's new U.N. ambassador, Youssoufou Bamba, said he is worried about his country's future and is consulting with members of the Security Council ahead of a meeting next week on ways to help Ouattara assume power.
"We are on the brink of genocide," Bamba said after presenting his diplomatic credentials to Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon in New York.
Associated Press writers Anita Snow at the United Nations, David Stringer in London and Matthew Lee in Washington contributed to this report.