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Gbagbo is still defiant

ABIDJAN - Tension mounted yesterday between Ivory Coast strongman Laurent Gbagbo and the international community as the United Nations complained of rights abuses and the European Union slapped sanctions on him.

Gbagbo has rejected demands he cede power to his rival Alassane Ouattara, and has instead ordered UN peacekeepers to leave the country.

The United Nations has refused Gbagbo's order to withdraw its 10000-strong force, and its chief human rights official accused Gbagbo's security forces of involvement in alleged kidnappings and murders.

The European Union decided yesterday to slap visa bans on Gbagbo and 18 of his inner circle, diplomats said. The measure will take up to 48 hours to come into force, and a decision to freeze assets for the 19 will be taken separately.

Former colonial power France, the US and Canada have also threatened sanctions, while the African Union and Ivory Coast's West African neighbours in the Ecowas bloc have demanded Gbagbo leave office.

UN peacekeepers continue to patrol the restive port city of Abidjan, Ivory Coast's sprawling commercial capital, supported by France's 900-strong Licorne, a holdover from Paris' formerly much larger military presence.

Gbagbo and Ouattara claim to have won last month's election, and both have had themselves declared president, but the incumbent has so far retained control of the official armed forces and of Abidjan's ministry buildings.

Ouattara has been recognised as president by the international community, and is supported by the former rebel movement that controls Ivory Coast north of the 2003 ceasefire line that divides the country into two armed camps.

But in the south, home to the government and the cocoa ports that dominate Ivory Coast's economy, his movements are limited to the grounds of the Golf Hotel, a luxury waterfront resort in Abidjan protected by UN "blue helmets".

Meanwhile, in the poor suburbs of the city, there are reports of gangs in uniform raiding houses at night and "disappearing" suspected Ouattara backers.

On Sunday, UN high commissioner for human rights Navi Pillay expressed concern about "the growing evidence of massive violations of human rights" in the restive West African country since Thursday.

Paris also urged Gbagbo to restrain his forces, and warned Licorne would protect France's estimated 15000 expatriate citizens in Ivory Coast, where they still have major economic interests 50 years after independence.

But rather than showing any signs of preparing to back down, Gbagbo has instead hardened his position and his most notorious lieutenant has embarked on a series of daily rallies around Abidjan to stir up hardline supporters.

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