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Disputed Ivory Coast leader seizes 4 banks

Associated Press / February 19, 2011

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ABIDJAN, Ivory Coast — Ivory Coast’s incumbent leader, who is clinging to power, seized four major international banks yesterday that had closed their operations earlier this week, attempting to pay civil servants amid a deepening liquidity crisis.

The spokesman for the sitting president, Laurent Gbagbo, read a decree on state television late Thursday saying that the banks had closed without giving the three months notice required by Ivorian law.

Ahoua Don Mello said the government would take over the offices for Britain’s Standard Chartered; France’s BNP-Paribas and Societe Generale; and the United States’ Citibank.

Yesterday, all four banks’ head offices were still shuttered, and soldiers and policemen loyal to Gbagbo were posted outside the two French banks.

Between them, these banks hold virtually all of the bank accounts for civil servants, and their closures had sent panic through Ivory Coast’s biggest city, with hundreds of people lining up desperate to withdraw cash.

Shaun Gamble, spokesman for Standard Chartered Bank in London, said, “Our position hasn’t changed from a couple of days ago, when we said that given the increasingly challenging operating environment in the Ivory Coast, we have decided to temporarily suspend our operations there until it is safe to reopen.’’ Gamble said they would continue monitoring the situation.

Gbagbo’s government would nationalize the banks to pay February’s salaries, Don Mello said. It is unclear, however, how Gbagbo will access the banks’ funds.

Gbagbo has already nationalized the central bank, the electricity company, and the stock exchange in an attempt to keep the Ivorian economy running amid increasing international financial pressure.

The international community had said it would use financial sanctions to dislodge Gbagbo, who is refusing to step down although results issued by his country’s election commission showed he had lost the Nov. 28 ballot.

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