UNITED NATIONS/ABIDJAN (Reuters) - Two United Nations advisers expressed grave fears on Thursday that ethnic violence could be brewing after Ivory Coast's disputed presidential election, and Abidjan's new ambassador to the U.N. declared the nation was on the "brink of genocide".
The advisers reported signs that "some leaders there are inciting violence between different elements of the population", during a standoff between incumbent President Laurent Gbagbo and challenger Alassane Ouattara after the elections which were supposed to heal the wounds of a civil war in 2002-03.
"Given the history of internal conflict in Cote d'Ivoire (Ivory Coast) such actions are highly irresponsible," advisers Francis Deng and Edward Luck were quoted as saying in a U.N. statement.
Deng said allegations that the Abidjan homes of political opponents of Gbagbo had been marked to identify their ethnicity were extremely worrying.
"There are continuing reports, so far unconfirmable, of serious human rights violations by supporters of Mr. Laurent Gbagbo and by forces under his control as well as the use of inflammatory speech to incite hatred and violence," they said.
World leaders have stepped up pressure on Gbagbo to quit in favour of Ouattara, who is widely recognised as having won the vote on Nov. 28 in the world's top cocoa growing nation. But the dispute over the results has provoked lethal street clashes and threatens to restart open conflict.
Deng, who is special adviser on the prevention of genocide and Luck who holds the same position on the "responsibility to protect", did not directly refer to the possibility of genocide or identify any ethnic groups that might be under threat.
But Youssoufou Bamba, appointed as ambassador to the U.N. by Ouattara, voiced deep concerns. "One of the messages I try to get across during the conversations I have conducted so far, is to tell we are on the brink of genocide. Something should be done," Bamba told reporters in New York.
The U.N. General Assembly last week recognised Ouattara as Ivory Coast's legitimate president by unanimously deciding that the list of diplomats he submitted to the world body be recognised as the sole representatives of Ivory Coast.
But Gbagbo has shown no sign of giving in and has accused former colonial power France of orchestrating an international plot alongside the United States to remove him from power. The French government dismissed the allegations as groundless.
Ambassador Bamba described Ouattara, who has set up a headquarters in an Abidjan hotel protected by U.N. troops, as the rightful ruler of Ivory Coast.
"He has been elected in a free, fair, transparent, democratic election. The result has been proclaimed by the independent electoral commission, certified by the U.N.," Bamba told a news conference. "To me the debate is over, now you are talking about how and when Mr. Gbagbo will leave office."
However, the results were quickly overturned by the country's top court, run by a Gbagbo ally, over allegations of fraud.
Bamba said there had been a massive violation of human rights, with over 170 people killed in street protests, adding he aimed to meet all 15 members of the U.N. Security Council.
"We expect the United Nations to be credible and the United Nations to prevent violation and to prevent the election to be stolen from the people," he said.
THREAT OF FORCE
The turmoil has pushed cocoa futures to four-month highs amid fears it could eventually disrupt exports. Ivory Coast's Eurobond hit a record low last week on concern that the country would not meet a nearly $30 million bond payment due on Dec. 31.
West African regional bloc ECOWAS has threatened to use force to oust Gbagbo if he does not leave quietly, and rebels still running the north after the civil war have said they would join any intervention.
"We will fight alongside the ECOWAS force to remove Laurent Gbagbo from power," said spokesman Affousy Bamba by telephone on Thursday. "We are awaiting ECOWAS' decision."
A delegation of three West African leaders will return to Ivory Coast next week in an effort to persuade Gbagbo, president since 2000, to cede power or risk facing "legitimate force".
Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan, chairman of ECOWAS, said a decision would be made after the talks and added that he hoped for a peaceful outcome.
A military official told reporters in Abuja that ECOWAS defence chiefs were meeting in Nigeria's defence headquarters to map out strategies should Gbagbo refuse to cede power.
The United States and European Union have slapped sanctions on Gbagbo and his inner circle, while the World Bank and the West African regional central bank have cut his financing in an attempt to weaken his grip on power.
Some 16,000 Ivorians have fled the country for Liberia, and the U.N. is preparing for the number nearly to double. However, business and traffic in Ivory Coast's main city Abidjan was near normal on Thursday.
(Reporting by Ange Aboa in Abidjan, Felix Onuah in Abuja, and Lou Charbonneau at the United Nations; Writing by Giles Elgood; Editing by David Stamp)