Image: U.N. forces drive past a billboard for President Laurent Gbagbo in Abidjan, Ivory Coast
Sunday Alamba  /  AP
U.N. forces drive past a billboard for President Laurent Gbagbo in Abidjan, Ivory Coast on Dec. 23. The United Nations said Thursday that at least 173 people have been killed and dozens of others have gone missing or been tortured following Ivory Coast's disputed presidential election, which has prompted fears of a return to civil war. 
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updated 12/26/2010 5:10:44 PM ET 2010-12-26T22:10:44

West African leaders are giving the man who refuses to leave Ivory Coast's presidency a final chance to hand over power and are threatening to remove Laurent Gbagbo by force if needed, though doubts exist about whether the operation could be carried out.

Meanwhile, the U.N. refugee agency said at least 14,000 people have fled the violence and political chaos in Ivory Coast, some walking for up to four days with little food to reach neighboring Liberia. At least one child drowned while trying to cross a river.

The U.N. has said at least 173 people have been killed in violence over the disputed presidential runoff election held nearly one month ago, heightening fears that the country once divided in two could return to civil war. The toll is believed to be much higher, though, as the U.N. mission has been blocked from investigating other reports including an allegation of a mass grave.

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On Sunday, the interior minister appointed by Gbagbo accused the U.N. of only telling half the story.

"The government of Ivory Coast denounces the lack of objectivity and balance in the procedures carried out by the U.N. Human Rights Council," said Emile Guirieoulou, the interior minister. He said that at least 36 of the victims were police or other security forces who "were targeted by gunfire coming from the protesters."

Guirieoulou also alleged that the thousands of refugees arriving in Liberia had fled violence perpetrated by rebels who support Alassane Ouattara, the man who the international community says won the presidential election.

Gbagbo has been in power since 2000 and had already overstayed his mandate by five years when the long-delayed presidential election was finally held in October. The vote was intended to help reunify the country, which was divided by the 2002-2003 civil war into a rebel-controlled north and a loyalist south.

Instead, the election has renewed divisions that threaten to plunge the country back into civil war. While Ivory Coast was officially reunited in a 2007 peace deal, Ouattara still draws his support from the northern half of the country, where residents feel they are often treated as foreigners within their own country by southerners.

The U.N. certified Ouattara as the winner of the election, but a Gbagbo ally overturned those results by throwing out half a million ballots from Ouattara strongholds in the north. The move angered people who had waited for years as officials settled who would be allowed to vote in the election, differentiating between Ivorians with roots in neighboring countries and foreigners.

For nearly a month, Gbagbo has defied calls from the U.N., United States, former colonizer France, African Union and European Union to step aside and hand over power to Ouattara.

West African leaders from the regional bloc ECOWAS late Friday threatened a military intervention if Gbagbo does not step down. On Sunday, Sierra Leone's information ministry said that three leaders from the region would pay him a visit.

"In the spirit of brotherliness in Africa, three presidents have been nominated by their colleagues to confront Mr. Gbagbo in Abidjan to encourage him to leave office without delay," the ministry said. "The three presidents can fly back with Mr. Gbagbo, as all ECOWAS countries are prepared to grant him asylum."

Gbagbo has shown few signs that he plans to go, though, and his security forces have been accused of being behind hundreds of arrests, and dozens of cases of disappearance and torture in recent weeks. A Gbagbo adviser has said he does not believe their supporters are behind the attacks.

While the threat of a military intervention creates pressure on Gbagbo, Africa security analyst Peter Pham said there are "serious doubts that ECOWAS has the wherewithal to carry it out."

"None of the ECOWAS countries has the type of special operations forces capable of a 'decapitation strike' to remove the regime leadership," said Pham, who is the senior vice president of the National Committee on American Foreign Policy in New York. "That leaves the rather unpalatable option of mounting a full-scale invasion of the sort that would inevitably involve urban fighting and civilian casualties."

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Pham also said there is "little chance" that the U.N. would allow its peacekeepers to get involved in such an effort. "The precedent would make it very difficult to get future agreement for deployment of such missions by host countries," he said.

Diplomatic pressure and sanctions have left Gbagbo increasingly isolated, though he has been able to maintain his rule for nearly a month since the disputed vote because he still has the loyalty of security forces and the country's military.

Even that, though, may disappear if he runs out of money to pay them. Gbagbo's access to the state funds used to pay soldiers and civil servants has been cut off and only Ouattara's representatives now have access to the state coffers.

Senior diplomatic sources, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue, say that Gbagbo only has enough reserves to run the country for three months.

In recent days, the United Nations has expressed alarm about the actions of men who are believed to be Gbagbo loyalists. The world body reported Thursday that heavily armed forces allied with Gbagbo, who were joined by masked men with rocket launchers, were preventing people from getting to the village of N'Dotre, where the global body said "allegations point to the existence of a mass grave."

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Associated Press Writer Clarence Roy-Macaulay in Freetown, Sierra Leone contributed to this report.

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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