ABIDJAN, Ivory Coast (AP) — A new report from U.N. experts accuses exiled allies of Ivory Coast's former president of trying to recruit Islamist rebels who took control of the northern half of neighboring Mali in a campaign to destabilize the volatile West African region, a U.N. diplomat and a Western official familiar with the document said Monday.
The experts also accuse supporters of ex-President Laurent Gbagbo of trying to recruit Mali's military junta, which controls the other half of the country, to the destabilization campaign — and of trying to seize power from Ivory Coast's current President Alassane Ouattara, the two officials said.
The report by a U.N. panel of experts, which has been circulated to the U.N. Security Council, highlights the connection between the recent political upheavals in Ivory Coast and Mali and is likely to intensify international concerns that radical Islamist groups that have links to al-Qaida's North Africa branch are attempting to strengthen their presence across Africa.
It documents meetings between Gbagbo allies and the soldiers who seized power in Mali in March and with the radical Islamist group Ansar Dine, which took control of the north in April, the diplomat and Western official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because the report has not been made public.
Ivory Coast headed to the brink of civil war in early 2011 when then-president Gbagbo refused to concede defeat after losing the presidential runoff vote to Ouattara. After months of violence, which claimed at least 3,000 lives, Ouattara took office in May 2011 but tensions remain high between his supporters and Gbagbo loyalists.
Gbagbo is accused of crimes against humanity, including murder and rape, for actions committed by his supporters after the election and is currently at the International Criminal Court in The Hague, Netherlands, awaiting trial.
The military junta that ousted Mali's democratically elected leader accused him of failing to quell the rebellion in the north, which began in January. After the coup, Tuareg rebels took advantage of the power vacuum and within weeks took control of the north aided by an Islamist faction. Then, the Islamists quickly ousted the Tuaregs and took control of half the country.
The panel's report strongly indicates that Gbagbo's supporters, seeking a return to power, are prepared to join forces with the coup leaders and Islamist groups in Mali to destabilize the region, the U.N. diplomat and official said.
According to the U.N. diplomat, the panel reported that Gbagbo supporters and members of the Malian junta met in the Malian capital, Bamako, at the end of June.
The junta representatives expressed interest in supporting destabilization operations that would compromise efforts by the west African regional group ECOWAS and its current chairman, the Ivory Coast leader Ouattara, to promote peace and stablity in the immediate region, the diplomat quoted the report as saying.
Last month, Mali formally requested military support from ECOWAS and asked the U.N. Security Council to authorize military action to retake the north. But the international community is concerned that the coup leader, Capt. Amadou Haya Sanogo, will oppose any intervention because it could dilute the considerable power he still wields in Bamako, where an interim government has been installed.
Nonetheless, France is expected to circulate a draft Security Council resolution, possibly on Tuesday, to pressure Mali's government and ECOWAS to agree quickly on a workable military plan to oust the Islamic militants in the north. France hopes an Oct. 19 meeting in Bamako of the African Union, ECOWAS, the U.N. and other key actors will agree on a plan for military intervention that the Security Council can endorse.
The report also documents a meeting between exiled Gbagbo allies and an Islamist representative on the border between Mauritania and Senegal, the Western official said.
The U.N. diplomat said Gbagbo supporters and Ansar Dine Islamists discussed possible future cooperation, with a view to threatening peace and security in the area and providing possible military-technical assistance through mercenaries. The expert panel said it documented an SMS message exchange of a member of the pro-Gbagbo group where this meeting is mentioned, the diplomat said.
The report also described how three separate groups of exiled Gbagbo allies met on July 12 in Takoradi, Ghana, and agreed to join forces in an attempt to reclaim power from Ouattara, the Western official said.
Ivory Coast officials have accused Gbagbo allies exiled abroad of masterminding a recent series of attacks on military positions in Ivory Coast. At least nine attacks have been carried out since early August, the most recent of which hit the border town of Noe in late September, causing Ivory Coast to close its borders with Ghana. Land and sea borders were only re-opened on Monday.
The report could ramp up pressure on West African governments, notably Ghana, to enforce more than 20 arrest warrants issued by Ivory Coast for Gbagbo allies accused of playing key roles in last year's post-election violence.
The Western official who saw the report said it implicated a number of high-profile exiled Gbagbo allies in the destabilization plot, among them Justin Kone Katinan, a spokesman for Gbagbo who was arrested in Ghana late last month. Other names include Gbagbo's second wife, Nady Bamba, and Charles Ble Goude, former leader of a pro-Gbagbo youth organization who has been implicated by Human Rights Watch in grave crimes committed during the conflict.
A statement sent by a lawyer for Ble Goude, whose whereabouts are unknown, rejected the report, branding its allegations as "malicious lies which have been purposefully promoted by those who wish to prevent his return to public service" in Ivory Coast.
"Charles Ble Goude, furthermore, regrets the lack of impartiality shown by the group of experts in failing to contact him through his legal representative in order to obtain his response to the allegations," the statement said.
Lederer reported from the United Nations in New York