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20th Feb 2020

MEPs question French intervention in Ivory Coast

Members of the European Parliament have questioned the nature of French and United Nations intervention in the Ivory Coast, just hours after a final surge resulted in the capture of the country's incumbent president, Laurent Gbagbo.

Paris has denied reports that it was French forces who successfully extracted Gbagbo from a bunker within the presidential palace in the city of Abidjan on Monday evening (11 April), but the dismissals have failed to halt cries of 'neocolonialism'.

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Speaking on Tuesday morning with the European External Action Service's (EAS) managing director for Africa, Nicholas Westcott, several members of the European Parliament's foreign affairs committee also expressed doubts over the UN mandate for direct military intervention, seen in recent days.

"I'm uneasy about the type of intervention which occurred in the Ivory Coast, given the role of French forces involved ... We simply jump from one area to another," said Slovenian Liberal MEP Ivo Vajgl, a reference to France's second military operation in Libya.

"Has the intervention [in the Ivory Coast] been a success ... there are criticisms that we are moving back to 19th Century colonialism," added Vajgl.

Belgian Socialist MEP Véronique De Keyser also described her "unease" over international actions in the Ivory Coast, which saw French and UN helicopters strike military targets and heavy weapons depots on Monday and Wednesday of last week.

"It seems slightly unusual that the UN was involved in offensive operations," said Conservative MEP Van Orden, also questioning why Zimbabwe had not seen similar action over the years.

The EAS official defended the moves as necessary to limit civilian casualties, after a five-month standoff following disputed presidential elections in the Ivory Coast last November recently broke down into fierce fighting in Abidjan.

"I think people who criticise the French Licorne intervention don't really know what is happening there. It was logical that it protect civilians," Westcott told the committee.

"The United Nations Operation in the Ivory Coast (UNOCI) had from the start quite a robust mandate for the protection of civilians, reinforced over a week ago by resolution 1975."

"I understand the disquiet over the type of intervention, but it took place under the circumstances of a civil war. Gbagbo was clearly intent on keeping himself in power by whatever means possible, including the dropping of mortar bombs on civilians in market places."

On Monday night, the internationally-recognised winner of the presidential elections, Alassane Ouattara, issued a call for calm after national television showed images of Gbagbo being held in a hotel room in Abidjan.

Experts say a huge challenge now lies before Ouattara, with the country's geographic, religious and ethnic divisions running back over a decade. The Ivory Coast has effectively been split in two following a rebellion in 2002.

Recent atrocities committed by both sides are likely to complicate that task, with a report by Human Rights Watch over the weekend detailing how forces loyal to Ouattara: "summarily executed and raped perceived Gbagbo supporters in their homes, as they worked in the fields, as they fled."

EU high representative Catherine Ashton has called for all perpetrators of human rights abuses to be held accountable for their actions, with Ouattara pledging to set up a 'peace and reconciliation committee'.

The question of land reform is also likely to be raised, with a long-running land dispute cited as one explanation behind the reported massacre which took place near the western town of Duékoué earlier this month, an event which saw over 800 people killed, according to the International Committee of the Red Cross.

The Ivory Coast is the world's largest producer of Cocoa, with traders now keen to get back to business after EU-imposed sanctions brought much of the industry to a standstill in recent months.

Establishing a governance system which suitably reflects the country's divisions was also among the subjects raised by the MEPs. "The EU has supported a devolution project in the Ivory Coast for many years," said Westcott. "It will continue to do so if that is what Ivorians opt for."

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