U.N. charge on Ivorian arms smuggling is denied

By Tim Cocks

ABIDJAN (Reuters) - The United Nations has accused Belarus of breaking an arms embargo against Ivory Coast by delivering attack helicopters to Laurent Gbagbo, the leader who has resisted three months of pressure to quit after a disputed election.

But Gbagbo's government denied the U.N. report as a "lie" and U.N. diplomats told Reuters on Monday that the allegation had not been confirmed. They said the accusation by Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon was based on reports he had received from the U.N. peacekeeping mission in Ivory Coast.

"We're trying to figure out if this allegation is credible," a Security Council diplomat told Reuters. "There's a lot of confusion."

The allegation follows a week of gun battles between forces loyal to Gbagbo and supporters of his rival Alassane Ouattara, almost universally recognized by the outside world as winner of the November 28 presidential election.

The stand-off risks pushing the world's top cocoa grower back into full-blown civil war.

Gunfire erupted close to the center of Ivory Coast's commercial capital Abidjan on Monday, after a week of fighting in which a northern suburb was seized by insurgents who briefly knocked out the state TV and army communications transmitter.

November's election was meant to heal divisions sown by a 2002-3 civil war that left the country divided into a rebel-run north and government-run south, but has only worsened divisions.

The U.N. said the number of Ivorian refugees in Liberia had reached 68,000, with another 40,000 internally displaced.

Cocoa futures rose to a 32-year peak on Monday as fears of civil war increased.

"The secretary-general has learned with deep concern that three attack helicopters and related materiel from Belarus are reportedly being delivered at (Ivory Coast's capital) Yamoussoukro for Mr. Gbagbo's forces," the spokesman for U.N. chief Ban said in a statement late on Sunday.

"The first delivery arrived reportedly on a flight which landed this evening and additional flights are scheduled for tomorrow. This is a serious violation of the embargo against Ivory Coast which has been in place since 2004," he added.

On Monday, however, U.N. Security Council and other diplomats said on condition of anonymity that neither the U.N. Department of Peacekeeping Operations nor the Security Council's so-called Group of Experts, which monitors sanctions violations, could confirm the allegation.

The Belarussian foreign ministry denied violating any embargo, according to Russia's Interfax news agency.

Gbagbo government spokesman Ahoua Don Mello also denied it.

"No arms have been received in Ivory Coast in violation of the embargo," he said. He accused Western powers of seeking a pretext to invade, as when they wrongly claimed Iraq's Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction.


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