UN chief: Belarus sent helicopters to Ivory Coast


ABIDJAN, Ivory Coast -- Three attack helicopters are being delivered from Belarus to military forces supporting Ivory Coast's longtime ruler who refuses to cede power, the U.N. chief said, marking a dramatic escalation in the months-long political crisis.

The move by incumbent leader Laurent Gbagbo comes after a week of intensified street fighting in the main city of Abidjan that left dozens dead. The bloody clashes between supporters of Gbagbo and his political rival prompted the United Nations to warn that the country was closer to the brink of re-igniting civil war.

On Sunday, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon's office said that helicopters from Belarus were being sent to Gbagbo's forces in violation of an international arms embargo. The first delivery reportedly arrived Sunday evening and additional flights were scheduled for Monday.

"This is a serious violation of the embargo against Cote d'Ivoire, which has been in place since 2004," Ban's statement said, using the country's French name.

Ban "warns both the supplier of this military equipment and Mr. Gbagbo that appropriate action will be taken in response to the violation."

The U.N. has been providing 24-hour protection to Alassane Ouattara, the internationally recognized winner of the Nov. 28 presidential election. He has been confined to the grounds of a heavily guarded hotel because Gbagbo refuses to leave office.

The three-month standoff already has claimed the lives of hundreds of Ouattara supporters, victims of targeted assassinations and "disappearances" carried out at night by security forces loyal to Gbagbo. The conflict reached a new level of intensity last week when commandos allied with Ouattara infiltrated the Abidjan district of Abobo.

They struck back, killing police and transforming the nature of the conflict from one pitting the police against unarmed demonstrators to one between two armed forces.

Gbagbo and his supporters accuse the U.N. of bias because the mission oversaw the election and certified Ouattara's victory. The U.N.'s role in acting as the election's certifier is unique on the continent, part of an accord pushed for by the country's opposition who believed Gbagbo would attempt to steal the election.

Governments around the world have recognized Ouattara as the legitimate president and called on Gbagbo to leave.

Associated Press writers Rukmini Callimachi in Abidjan, Ivory Coast and Peter James Spielmann in New York contributed to this report.


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