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U.N. reaffirms neutrality in Ivory Coast standoff

By the CNN Wire Staff
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U.N. 'neutral' in Ivory Coast turmoil
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • The U.N. mission is "impartial and will remain so," a member of the mission says
  • Reinforcement of the peacekeeping force is "not imminent," a U.N. official says
  • Women march in Abidjan after killings last week

(CNN) -- The U.N. mission in Ivory Coast reaffirmed its neutrality Tuesday despite a brewing conflict between government troops and a rebel movement that backs the internationally recognized winner of last year's election.

The statement from the U.N. mission, known as UNOCI, follows complaints from allies of opposition leader Alassane Ouattara, who blame self-proclaimed President Laurent Gbagbo's forces for the recent killings of civilians in the West African country. The mission is "impartial and will remain so," said Axel Queval, the interim regional director for UNOCI.

"Don't get the impression that we support one candidate over the other," Queval said in a meeting with local officials in the north-central city of Bouake. "We are as concerned as you are by the violence and we are doing what we can to bring an end to it, in accordance with the mandate given to us."

The simmering conflict between forces loyal to Gbagbo and Ouattara, the internationally recognized winner of November's presidential vote, has left at least 365 dead since December. At least seven women were killed during a peaceful demonstration by women in Abidjan last week, and at least one person was shot by Gbagbo's troops during new clashes Monday, according to witnesses.

The Security Council authorized an increase of 2,000 troops for the 9,000-strong UNOCI mission in January. But that reinforcement is "not imminent," as the additional troops need more equipment and training, an official at U.N. headquarters told CNN.

Member states have been slow to contributed forces to the expanded mission, the official said. The reinforcements will need a hospital unit and air support; two promised attack helicopters have arrived, but delivery of a third is still pending, the official said.

UNOCI's mission involves protecting civilians as well as enforcing the peace, and one diplomat said the troops are not currently armed for those duties.

The African Union is currently trying to mediate the brewing conflict, and the Security Council plans to give that effort until the end of the month before considering further action, the U.N. official said. The council issued a statement Thursday expressing concern about the increase in violence.

Gbagbo has had himself sworn in for a new term and has moved to nationalize the country's two main cash crops, coffee and cocoa, state-run television announced Monday. The Ivory Coast is the world's largest supplier of cocoa beans, and coffee and cocoa exports have provided the embattled leader with a source of revenue to pay loyal civil servants and military officers. In January, Ouattara called for a ban on cocoa and coffee exports in an effort to shut down that revenue stream and force Gbagbo out of office.

Last week's killings drew widespread condemnation and sparked a protest outside the United Nations on Tuesday. In Abidjan, Ivory Coast's largest city, they drew another march by women protesting the killings, as men supporting Ouattara marched alongside the women to protect them.

A mix of military and police forces patrolled the Treichville district, where the march took place, and burning tires were strewn about on the ground.

CNN's Richard Roth, Joe Vaccarello and Whitney Hurst at the United Nations and journalist Eric Agnero in Abidjan contributed to this report.