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Diplomat: U.S. Fears ‘Brutal Situation’ Unless Ivory Coast President Steps Down

December 23, 2010 at 9:09 PM EST
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As the U.N. reports more than 170 deaths in Ivory Coast, Judy Woodruff talks to State Department official William Fitzgerald about election unrest in the African nation.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: For more on the situation in Ivory Coast, we turn to William Fitzgerald. He’s deputy assistant secretary of state for African affairs.

Secretary Fitzgerald, thank you very much for being here.

WILLIAM FITZGERALD, U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs: Thank you, Judy.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And just a quick correction: Not all diplomatic personnel have been ordered to leave, but some have.

WILLIAM FITZGERALD: That’s correct.

I mean, the U.S. Embassy, we have drawn down a bit, but we still have an embassy up and running, for sure.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Now, what is the very latest you’re hearing about the situation on the ground?

WILLIAM FITZGERALD: Well, to be perfectly honest with you, the latest I’m hearing is that there’s a lot of traffic moving around, that restaurants and some stores are open, but, for sure, the tension is very, very high.

People are concerned about possible violence in the streets. And I think, over the next two days, 24th and 25th in particular, over this weekend, there’s the potential for street violence. Former President Gbagbo’s forces have said they will march in the streets tomorrow. And that could be a flash point.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Where is Mr. Ouattara, the person who the rest of the world, essentially, is saying won this election?

WILLIAM FITZGERALD: I would call him President Ouattara. And he’s in the Gulf Hotel, along with his prime minister, which…

JUDY WOODRUFF: In country?

WILLIAM FITZGERALD: That’s correct. That’s correct, surrounded by, protected by the U.N. troops there, as well as others. And he’s surrounded by a cordon put up by President Gbagbo’s security forces.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Why is the West, the U.S. and other countries, so certain that Mr. Ouattara won this election?

WILLIAM FITZGERALD: Well, Judy, to be perfectly honest with you, it’s a no-brainer.

Part of the resolution that was passed a few years ago in the U.N. insisted that the U.N. certify the elections. So, first off, when the elections came through, the electoral commission tried to announce them. They were blocked by President Gbagbo and his supporters.

And so it went to the constitutional council, who was stacked by President Gbagbo. Meantime, the U.N. was counting the ballots, basically the same information that everyone had, and they came up with the same exact finding as the electoral commission, which was that Alassane Ouattara won with 54 percent.

JUDY WOODRUFF: How concerned is the Obama administration, is the State Department about what is going on?

WILLIAM FITZGERALD: Deeply concerned.

I can tell you that the number-one policy priority for the Obama administration when we talk about Africa is democracy and human rights. And you saw yourself that the U.N. has come out, really, a remarkable feat up in Geneva, where the African — the African bloc took over, pushed a presidential session against Cote d’Ivoire and actually condemned what was going on in Cote d’Ivoire, the first time I have ever seen at the U.N. Human Rights Council that the Africans have turned on the Africans, accused the Africans of that.

And we’re also seeing now 176 people have been killed since, really, ballpark, December 7, so, in just a short time. And the vast majority of those are supporters of President Ouattara

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, of course, you’re using Cote d’Ivoire. That’s the French name…

WILLIAM FITZGERALD: That’s right.

JUDY WOODRUFF: … name for the country that was used for so long.

What are the repercussions? I mean, why is this particular country of concern? Human life is always of value.

WILLIAM FITZGERALD: Absolutely. Absolutely.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But what is it about this country and this region of Africa that is worrying?

WILLIAM FITZGERALD: Well, it’s part of what’s called the Mano River region in this — in West Africa. And other — other countries in the Mano River region are Liberia and Sierra Leone.

And I think everyone realizes and remembers the brutal, brutal civil wars that we have seen in both of those countries. And they have come out of the civil wars and have a democratic — democratically elected government, with a push to try and build — rebuild their countries.

Now, if Cote d’Ivoire melts down, which, frankly, is larger than both of these other countries, it threatens the entire subregion, really threatens all of West Africa.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What leverage does the rest of the world have? We were just talking about the African banks now clamping down.

WILLIAM FITZGERALD: Yes.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Talk about that.

WILLIAM FITZGERALD: Right.

Well, we start with the sanctions that we have imposed, the United States. And those are travel sanctions against a class of people, including President Gbagbo and his wife, Simone, that they’re not allowed to travel to the United States, family members of this class of people, people who are supporting the — the inner circle of the Gbagbo regime, people who, in fact, do have relatives in the United States doing business, doing tourism, who could conceivably be forced out.

The European Union has done the same thing, slapping travel bans on — again, these are targeted sanctions, focusing on the top level, those who are supporting Gbagbo in trying to steal the election.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And then the economic and financial sanctions imposed by the banks, the Central Bank…

WILLIAM FITZGERALD: That’s right.

JUDY WOODRUFF: … in West Africa.

WILLIAM FITZGERALD: Correct.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What is the concern? How far is it believed that Gbagbo could go in trying to hang on to power?

WILLIAM FITZGERALD: We have seen his actions in the past. You know, not only does he have the support of many of the military organizations, but he also employs militias and this group called the Young Patriots, which is really street gangs, that sort of thing.

But they terrorize people. And part of the disappearances, these human rights violations, these 167 extrajudicial killings, have been carried out. Indeed, Judy, what we were talking about before, the U.N. has confirmed the presence of Liberian mercenaries in Abidjan.

This is going to be an ugly, ugly, brutal situation, unless President Gbagbo, former President Gbagbo, agrees and steps down.

JUDY WOODRUFF: At this point, is the United States in contact with Mr. Ouattara, the man you say is legitimately the president?

WILLIAM FITZGERALD: Yes, we do. Yes, we are in contact with him.

However, I would like to say we’re in contact with President Gbagbo, but he doesn’t — he doesn’t talk to us directly. We’re dealing with his foreign minister. He has really withdrawn to the presidential palace, and he’s isolated himself.

JUDY WOODRUFF: I read that President Obama had attempted to be in touch. How, by…

WILLIAM FITZGERALD: By telephone.

JUDY WOODRUFF: By telephone? And what happened?

WILLIAM FITZGERALD: The same thing that happened with President Sarkozy of France. He refused to take the call. And I think that’s a pretty telling indication of former President Gbagbo’s goals in all of this.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, as we — as we conclude here, Secretary Fitzgerald, what are you watching in the next 24 to 48 hours? You said you’re particularly concerned over the next few days.

WILLIAM FITZGERALD: Well, we have to watch if the street protests start. And if the street protests start, and there are clashes, in the past — over the past 10 years, we have seen these clashes mushroom into much larger-scale violence, and, in fact, at one point led to civil war.

We have got to avoid that. We have got to avoid violence, but, at the same time, endorse and support democracy. That’s what it’s all about. Cote d’Ivoire — the people of Cote d’Ivoire have expressed their votes, have expressed their choice. But President Gbagbo refuses to accept that he lost the election.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, it’s certainly a story that we and a lot of other folks are going to be watching. We thank you very much for coming in.

Secretary William Fitzgerald, we appreciate it.

WILLIAM FITZGERALD: Thank you, Judy.