Gbagbo sends mixed signal on peace effort in Ivory Coast (UPDATES)


Residents walk on March 18, 2011 past the bodies of three men killed the day before in a street of the popular Abidjan district of Adjame, Ivory Coast.


Issouf Sanogo

Ivory Coast strongman Laurent Gbagbo sent conflicting messages Friday to those hoping for an end the the bloody post-election leadership crisis, calling on Ivorians to "neutralize" suspected rebels but also signaling his willingness to hold talks with the opposition.

His conflicting messages came as the United Nations described a shocking escalation of violence in Ivory Coast, the world's top cocoa producer, which has been wracked by violence since disputed presidential elections in November.

CNN quoted a U.N. spokesman as saying Friday: "We are shocked at the escalating violence in [Ivory Coast], particularly in Abidjan, where this week was by far the most violent since the post-election crisis began."

The U.N. also condemned a mortar attack on a market Friday that killed at least 25 people, and said it could be a crime against humanity, according to the Associated Press.

The U.N. says Alassane Ouattara won the election, but Gbagbo has refused to step aside, resulting in urban warfare getting deadlier by the day between the two mens' supporters in the main city Abidjan. Northern rebels have also pushed south in the heaviest fighting since they attempted toppling Gbagbo in a 2002-2003 civil war.

During a mediation summit on March 10 in Addis Ababa, the African Union also endorsed Ouattara. Its Peace and Security Council resolved to hold negotiations over a government of national union, according to Agence France-Presse.

In a statement read on state television Friday, Gbagbo's spokesman Ahoua Don Mello said Gbagbo "notes the framework of discussions proposed by the African Union and is awaiting the appointment of the high representative by the institution to consider inter-Ivorian dialogue."

But at the same time, Gbagbo's camp called on Ivory Coast's civilians to help his forces "neutralize" suspected rebels, raising fears of a return to all out civil war as fighting continued in Abidjan, the economic heart of a country.

Forces loyal to Gbagbo killed up to 30 civilians in an attack on an Abidjan suburb Thursday, the U.N. reportedly said.

According to a Human Rights Watch report, pro-Gbagbo youth mobs armed with automatic weapons, sticks and machetes have set up roadblocks all over town and have attacked U.N.staff and killed a number of West African immigrants and members of Ouattara's Dioula tribe.

Speaking on state-run RTI television just before midnight Thursday, Mello called on Ivorian civilians to join the fight against "terrorism."

"His Excellency Mr. Laurent Gbagbo calls on Ivorians to take a great responsibility and for a stronger collaboration between citizens and the security forces ... so that all suspect presences in our environment can be 'neutralized'," Mello said, Reuters reported.

Meantime, France's foreign ministry said Friday that it wants the U.N. Security Council to adopt tighter sanctions quickly against Gbagbo, to stop his use of civilian militias. Young men calling themselves the "Young Patriots" have been behind many of the attacks in the main city of Abidjan, a seaside city that is home to some five million people.