x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

UN staff leave Ivory Coast after poll

Hundreds of residents have fled Ivory Coast, UN officials said as they also began evacuating some 500 staffers after a contentious election that resulted in both candidates claiming the presidency.

ABIDJAN, IVORY COAST // Hundreds of residents have fled Ivory Coast, UN officials said yesterday as they also began evacuating some 500 staffers after a contentious election that resulted in both candidates claiming the presidency.

The UN development programme country director, Andre Carvalho, said hundreds of people had fled to neighbouring countries, and that officials feared more would leave if violence broke out.

"While there has not been any major violence, people have started fleeing into Ghana and Liberia," he said.

The international community has recognised the opposition leader, Alassane Ouattara, as the winner of last week's run-off vote.

Both Mr Ouattara and Laurent Gbagbo, the incumbent president, claimed victory in the poll and took oaths of office, and Mr Gbagbo has defied pressure from France, the United States and the UN to step down.

Mr Carvalho said uncertainty about the poll had interrupted daily activities. "Since the election, people haven't been working and haven't been making money." If the crisis continued, he said, it could turn into a humanitarian situation because "food prices will rise".

In Abidjan, the largest city, residents said they heard gunfire overnight in a pro-Ouattara neighbourhood. Residents said they were fired on by security forces, who appeared to have fallen under Mr Gbagbo's control.

Residents of the downtrodden Abobo neighbourhood described their method for warding off attacks: when they heard security forces approaching, neighbours blew on whistles and trumpets and banged on pots and pans to scare them away.

Hamadoun Toure, a UN spokesman, said on Monday that the UN deemed it necessary to move civilian staffers to nearby Gambia and Senegal. The relocation does not affect the more than 10,000 military peacekeepers, who will remain in Ivory Coast.

Once a beacon of stability in a troubled region, the West African nation has been struggling to hold an election for years. Mr Gbagbo's five-year mandate officially expired in 2005, but he extended his stay in office, arguing elections were impossible because rebels still controlled the northern half of the country.

The 2007 peace deal broke years of political stalemate, leading to the dismantlement of a UN-patrolled buffer zone. But the vote was delayed again repeatedly because of disputes over voter rolls.

More than a quarter of the country's 20 million people are foreign immigrants who came to work on cocoa and coffee plantations in the south. Differentiating them from native Ivorians - with roots and names common in neighbouring countries - has taken years.

About 4.8 million out of 5.7 million registered voters went to the polls, according to the electoral commission, meaning turnout was high - about 85 per cent. Many had hoped a peaceful election would unify the divided nation.

"People haven't been living in a stabilised environment for years," said Mr Carvalho. "They were on the point of normalisation with this election, but now we're going to have to start all over again. That's the sad part."