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UN: Ivory Coast gunmen block possible mass grave

UN forces drive past a billboard for President Laurent Gbagbo in, Ivory Coast, Abidjan Thursday, Dec. 23, 2010. The United Nations said Thursday that at least 173 people have been killed and dozens of others have gone missing or been tortured following Ivory Coast's disputed presidential election, which has prompted fears of a return to civil war. UN forces drive past a billboard for President Laurent Gbagbo in, Ivory Coast, Abidjan Thursday, Dec. 23, 2010. The United Nations said Thursday that at least 173 people have been killed and dozens of others have gone missing or been tortured following Ivory Coast's disputed presidential election, which has prompted fears of a return to civil war. (AP Photo/Sunday Alamba)
By Marco Chown Oved
Associated Press / December 24, 2010

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ABIDJAN, Ivory Coast—Masked gunmen with rocket launchers are blocking access to what officials believe may be a mass grave site in Ivory Coast, the United Nations said, as concerns grow that the West African nation that suffered a 2002-2003 civil war could return to conflict.

The U.N. reported that heavily armed forces allied with Laurent Gbagbo and joined by masked men, were preventing people from getting to the village of N'Dotre, where the global body said "allegations point to the existence of a mass grave."

The U.N. did not elaborate on the possible victims, though it has expressed concerns about hundreds of arrests, and dozens of cases of torture and disappearance during the political turmoil since the presidential runoff vote was held nearly a month ago.

"As the violence goes on the number of dead, wounded and missing persons is increasing rapidly," U.N. deputy spokesman Farhan Haq said late Thursday.

Alain Toussaint, an adviser for Gbagbo, has said that he didn't believe soldiers or people close to Gbagbo would carry out the acts of violence that have been reported.

Gbagbo has refused to step down from the presidency despite international calls for his ouster from the U.N., U.S., former colonizer France, the European Union and the African Union. The international community recognizes Alassane Ouattara as the winner, though Gbagbo maintains control of the national military.

Ouattara on Friday condemned the violence in a speech at the Golf Hotel, where he has been holed up since the election, after journalists were helicoptered in by the U.N. to cover it.

"Serious human rights violations have been recorded all over," he said. "During the curfew, people were kidnapped and killed by Republican Guards and military police accompanied by mercenaries and foreign militiamen."

"I will do everything so that these atrocities don't happen again," he said, specifying that he has asked the International Criminal Court to send a team to investigate in the coming days.

Ouattara also called on the army and the U.N. to protect civilians.

Also Friday, West African leaders threatened to use "legitimate force" to remove Gbagbo if he does not give up power peacefully, said James Gbeho, president of the regional bloc ECOWAS -- the Economic Community of West African States -- following a six-hour emergency summit in Abuja, Nigeria, on Ivory Coast.

Gbeho said ECOWAS was making "an ultimate gesture to Mr. Gbagbo to urge him to make a peaceful exit," and that the group would dispatch a high level delegation to Ivory Coast.

Nigerian Foreign Minister Odein Ajumogobia said in a press briefing that the date of the delegation's visit had not yet been determined.

Gbeho said chief of defense staffs should meet "to plan future actions, including provision of security along the Ivory Coast-Liberia border, in the event that their message is not heeded."

At least 173 deaths have been confirmed in violence over the vote, and the U.N. is warning the number could be greater since it has been unable to investigate all the allegations. Even the top U.N. envoy in the country was stopped at gunpoint while trying to look into reports of human rights abuses, the U.N. deputy human rights commissioner in Geneva said Thursday.

United Nations peacekeeping chief Alain Le Roy called on Gbagbo to keep his pledge not to resort to violence.

"We hope for a peaceful solution to the crisis," Le Roy said in an interview with UN Radio.

Independent organizations said they feared for the fate of people who have been kidnapped since the election.

"Many of the abducted remain missing, and the security forces are refusing to reveal their whereabouts," Human Rights Watch said in a statement. "Several witnesses interviewed by Human Rights Watch had come across bodies with bullet wounds of those arrested or abducted, leading to strong fears of extra-judicial executions."

The U.S. State Department has ordered most of its personnel to leave because of the deteriorating security situation and growing anti-Western sentiment, and former colonizer France is also urging its citizens to leave. A youth leader accused of inciting a pro-Gbagbo group that has led violent attacks against foreigners in the past has called for a demonstration Wednesday.

Meanwhile, Ouattara is trying to assert control over state institutions. State television, which had been controlled by Gbagbo, was yanked from the air in most cities outside Abidjan late Thursday, and Gbagbo's access to state funds also has been blocked.

Ouattara's allies hope the move by the West African economic and monetary union late Thursday will set the stage for mass defections if Gbagbo cannot pay civil servants and soldiers in the military.

Officials with the regional monetary union made the announcement after an emergency session, and later said in a statement that only representatives of Ouattara's government would have signing privileges on state accounts. The regional bank, known by its acronym BCEAO, regroups the treasuries of eight West African countries.

There has been much speculation in recent days as to whether Gbagbo would be able to pay state salaries, despite nightly assurances on state television that the paychecks would be available before Christmas.

On Thursday morning, several banks in downtown Abidjan posted notices in their windows saying that they would not be cashing civil servant paychecks because they hadn't received a guarantee from the government that they would be reimbursed.

Lines of impatient civil servants formed outside the banks, but just after noon the notices were removed and one by one people started receiving their money.

While Ouattara has the backing of the international community, Gbagbo still controls the country's military -- and had dominated state media until late Thursday.

State television remained off the air Friday. It was not immediately clear how the signal was cut off Thursday. Advisers to Ouattara refused to comment, but the event fits with strategies Ouattara has been using to try to break Gbagbo's stranglehold on the news.

A week ago, Ouattara's supporters attempted unsuccessfully to seize control of the channel. State TV had run continuous footage of Gbagbo taking the oath of office in the days after he declared victory without mentioning that his claim was heavily contested.

Ivory Coast was once an economic hub because of its role as the world's top cocoa producer. The 2002-2003 civil war split the country into a rebel-controlled north and a loyalist south. While the country officially reunited in a 2007 peace deal, Ouattara draws his support from the northern half of the country, where he was born, while Gbagbo's power base is in the south.

Gbagbo claimed victory in the presidential election only after his allies threw out half a million ballots from Ouattara strongholds in the north, a move that infuriated residents there who have long felt that they are treated as foreigners in their own country by southerners.

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Associated Press writers Sadibou Marone in Dakar, Senegal, Bashir Adigun in Abuja, Nigeria, and Edith M. Lederer at the United Nations contributed to this report.

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