Wed January 26, 2011

Ivory Coast Leader Tries To Seize Regional Bank

Incumbent leader Laurent Gbagbo's government has ordered the seizure of the regional central bank's offices in Ivory Coast in an attempt to retain control of state finances after being cut off from the money used to pay civil servants.

His political rival Alassane Ouattara, who is the internationally recognized winner of the election held nearly two months ago, condemned the move Wednesday.

"This illegitimate and illegal decision to requisition is null and void. Thus, anyone who participates directly or indirectly in its implementation will be subject to sanctions and criminal prosecution," the statement said.

Without access to government funds, it's unclear whether Gbagbo will be able to continuing paying the country's military and security forces. Ouattara supporters hope that by stemming the flow of funds to Gbagbo's government they can force a mass defection.

Gbagbo's finance minister, Desire Dallo, announced on state television late Tuesday that the Ivorian government was seizing the regional bank's offices in Ivory Coast. Employees are to answer to local officials in Ivory Coast instead of the regional bank based in Dakar, Senegal, the order said.

The Central Bank of West African States, known by its acronym BCEAO, regroups the treasuries of eight West African countries.

The regional central bank first revoked Gbagbo's access to state accounts in December, saying only representatives of Ouattara's government would have signing privileges on state accounts. However, Ouattara officials said despite that action, Gbagbo had been able to still access money from the central bank. The head of the central bank, a Gbagbo supporter who had been accused of not cooperating with Ouattara, resigned Saturday.

A top-level West African delegation was scheduled to meet with President Obama on Wednesday to discuss Ivory Coast's political standoff. Sierra Leone's president will lead the contingent in lobbying the White House and the U.N. to back the possible use of force by the 15-nation West African bloc of countries known as ECOWAS to oust Gbagbo.

The U.N. says at least 260 people have been killed in violence since the vote.

Human Rights Watch said Wednesday that security forces and militias loyal to Gbagbo have been carrying out systematic murders and rapes targeting Ouattara's supporters.

Citing evidence from witnesses, the report said most militia killings took place in broad daylight while Gbagbo's security forces either sided with militia fighters or stood by. Gbagbo's allies have repeatedly denied any involvement in the post-election violence.

NPR's Ofeibea Quist-Arcton reported from Abidjan for this story, which contains material from The Associated Press. Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.