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U.N. probes Zimbabwe arms sent to Ivory Coast

The United Nations is investigating suspected arms transfers from Zimbabwe to Ivory Coast's incumbent leader Laurent Gbagbo in violation of U.N. sanctions, according to a report obtained by Reuters.
/ Source: Reuters

The United Nations is investigating suspected arms transfers from Zimbabwe to Ivory Coast's incumbent leader Laurent Gbagbo in violation of U.N. sanctions, according to a report obtained by Reuters.

The report emerged after a week of gun battles between forces loyal to Gbagbo and his rival Alassane Ouattara, almost universally recognized as winner of a Nov. 28 poll, that risk pushing the top cocoa grower back to full-blown civil war.

Diplomats on the U.N. Security Council said the possible transfer of weapons to Gbagbo was a serious matter. They said his forces could use them against U.N. peacekeepers -- UNOCI, who recognize Ouattara as Ivory Coast's president -- or Ivorian civilians who support Ouattara.

UNOCI's confidential "Embargo monitoring report January 2011," obtained by Reuters Thursday, said the mission was gathering more information on "the arrival of light weapons cargoes from Zimbabwe." U.N. officials told Reuters arms from Zimbabwe would have been intended for Gbagbo and not Ouattara.

In January, Gbagbo sent a special envoy to Harare to meet with and enlist the support of Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe, who like Gbagbo has been accused by his opponents of election fraud and is under U.S. and European Union sanctions.

Ivory Coast has been under an arms embargo since the last bout of serious violence in 2004, when pro-Gbagbo forces bombed French peacekeepers in the rebel-held north. Analysts say both sides have repeatedly violated the embargo.

The report also said UNOCI was monitoring a shipment of 10 large wooden boxes that "may contain trucks or tanks."

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"This cargo has been at Abidjan airport for six months," the UNOCI report said. "Aerial pictures confirmed the presence of these boxes, which are under 24/7 hours military surveillance."

Philippe Bolopion of Human Rights Watch said countries aiding Gbagbo should be careful: "Given the documented pattern of unlawful attacks on civilians by pro-Gbagbo forces, countries violating the arms embargo to provide weapons to his forces might be complicit in grave human rights abuses."

The report spoke of a "suspected cargo delivery from Angola," involving two Soviet-manufactured Sukhoi-27 fighter jets and a Soviet-made MIG-25 interceptor and reconnaissance bomber, spotted at San Pedro airport in Cape Verde, and a Russian cargo plane seen at Abidjan in January.

The Russian aircraft "has a considerable cargo capacity to carry heavy military equipment or a company of soldiers," the report said.

The report did not explicitly say whether the fighter jets were linked to Gbagbo's government. But it said UNOCI had received information that the "same (Russian cargo) aircraft had supplied equipment to the Ivorian government in 2005."

An official at Zimbabwe's mission expressed surprise about the allegation and declined to comment. Diplomats at Angola's U.N. mission were not immediately available for a reaction.

Gbagbo has ordered UNOCI out of the country, a demand the mission has ignored. U.N. troops have been protecting Ouattara, who is holed up in an Abidjan hotel along with his advisers.

The UNOCI report is not the first of a possible transfer of military aircraft to Gbagbo. U.N. peacekeeping chief Alain Le Roy apologized to Belarus for a U.N. statement Monday alleging that an initial shipment of attack helicopters had arrived in Ivory Coast from Belarus.

Diplomats said the statement on the helicopter sale issued by Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon's press office was based on credible U.S. intelligence. Ouattara's U.N. envoy Youssoufou Bamba told reporters that the only incorrect part of the statement was that a first shipment had arrived.

"It's true that he (Gbagbo) wanted these three helicopters to be smuggled into Cote d'Ivoire and be assembled," he said. "This is something we have from credible sources of intelligence."