MR. TONER: Good afternoon, everyone. Well, we thought it was – would be useful to invite our Assistant Secretary for African Affairs Johnnie Carson to come and give you all a very brief update on the situation in Cote d’Ivoire. Obviously, the situation remains fluid up to us walking out here, but we thought it would be useful for him to come and answer some of your questions, and then I’ll follow with the daily briefing.
Assistant Secretary Carson.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY CARSON: Thank you.
MR. TONER: Sure, thank you.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY CARSON: Mark, thank you. Good afternoon. Let me start with just a brief statement on the situation in the Ivory Coast, and I’ll take questions after that.
On November 27, 2010, Alassane Ouattara was elected president of Cote d’Ivoire. The elections were peaceful, and international observers commended the Ivoirian people for their high rate of participation. The United Nations, the Economic Community of West African States, ECOWAS, the African Union, and the international community writ large have reaffirmed President Ouattara’s victory over former President Laurent Gbagbo.
Since December, Laurent Gbagbo has refused to step down in defiance of the international community and the will of the Ivorian people. Over the past four months, the people of Cote d’Ivoire have lived through a political crisis that has devastated their economy, created a humanitarian crisis that threatens the region, and led to the deaths of over 400 Ivoirian citizens.
This week has seen some of the most intense fighting in Cote d’Ivoire since the political crisis began in late November. The United States calls on all parties to exercise restraint and to make the protection of civilians their highest priority. The people of the Cote d’Ivoire have already paid a very high price for democracy. We call upon both sides to ensure that civilians do not pay an even higher price in the future.
Those who choose not to heed this call will be held accountable for the atrocities and the human rights violations that they commit. The United Nations and the international community will investigate all alleged human rights violations. Those implicated in directing or carrying out these heinous acts will answer for their actions.
The United States and the international community have invested in seeing a peaceful and democratic future for Cote d’Ivoire. On March 30, the United Nations Security Council passed a unanimous resolution reaffirming its support for President Alassane Ouattara and calling on the 11,000-strong UN peacekeeping mission in Cote d’Ivoire to step up its protection of Ivoirian citizens, take direct action against those indiscipline forces who have targeted civilians, and to seize heavy weapons. These measures are absolutely essential in preventing more violence.
This is an important moment for Cote d’Ivoire, a time for all Ivoirians to play a positive and constructive role in the future of their country. The road ahead will not be easy, but the people of Cote d’Ivoire are up to the challenge. President Ouattara has outlined a plan for reconciliation and reconstruction for all of Cote d’Ivoire, and we hope that all Ivoirians will contribute to building a peaceful and prosperous future for their country.
Thank you. I’ll take some questions.
QUESTION: Yeah. This is maybe a little bit out of your remit, and quite frankly, I have to say I’m not optimistic on getting an answer. But what in your mind – the situation that you’ve described in Cote d’Ivoire sounds an awful lot like the situation in other places, or at least one other place, where the Administration has decided to intervene militarily. Can you explain why you don’t – you – don’t think that that kind of intervention is needed or desirable in Ivory Coast, given the fact that things are so dire on the ground?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY CARSON: The international community has intervened in the Ivory Coast, and that intervention is showing results. The other country that you’re thinking about is in the Maghreb. But let me just say that there are some 11,000 UN peacekeepers on the ground in the Ivory Coast. They are supplemented by French military units that are a part of that UN peacekeeping force.
Secondly, the government – or the former government of Laurent Gbagbo does not have helicopter gunships, jet aviation, or tanks in the numbers that we have seen in the other country that you have mentioned, nor have we seen the tremendous loss of life or the exceedingly large number of people racing for the borders. This is not to say that there is not a humanitarian crisis in the Ivory Coast; there is. The reason why we are so concerned about the Ivory Coast today is that if there is, in fact, a full-scale civil war in that country, it will not only lead to large refugee flows out into Liberia and to neighboring states; it will also probably lead to growing instability in Sierra Leone, Liberia, and other countries that have been plagued by instability before.
We’re concerned about this. We’re concerned about the hundred thousand Ivoirians that have already left and gone to Liberia. But there is a difference between the two countries that you speak of. The United Nations has been engaged, including in a new resolution just last night on this issue.
QUESTION: Right, I got – but what – could you outline for us what the American component of the UN operation is in Ivory Coast, what the U.S. is contributing to that other than perhaps just money?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY CARSON: The United States contributes about 25 percent of the financial wherewithal to all international peacekeeping operations, and this is no exception. What we have contributed is a great deal of diplomacy, diplomacy at the highest levels of the U.S. Government.
President Obama has been directly involved, Secretary Clinton has been directly involved, Deputy Secretary Jim Steinberg has been involved, I have been involved and our Ambassador in the region. We have worked closely with the United Nations, we’ve worked closely with the French, we’ve worked closely with Alassane Ouattara, and we have worked closely with the leaders of ECOWAS. Sometimes our political influence is as significant as what we put on the ground with respect to military might.
QUESTION: Well, right – well, except for, in this case, the political influence doesn’t – which has been brought to bear, since December, it hasn’t resulted in Gbagbo leaving, correct?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY CARSON: Well, I think the situation is quite fluid. If you have followed the events over the last 24 hours, you know that Alassane Ouattara’s forces have made substantial gains throughout the southern part of the country. In the west, they have made gains along the Liberian border. They have captured the second largest port city of San Pedro. They have captured the ceremonial capital of the country, Yamoussoukro. And they have made gains on the eastern side as well.
The only place where there is significant and substantial resistance to the forces of Alassane Ouattara are in and around Abidjan, and the news that we have is that the forces of Alassane Ouattara are now on the outskirts of the city.
QUESTION: Ancillary to that, there’s some reports that this conflict could be over in hours or a matter of days. What is your take on that? Obviously, you would support a complete takeover of Abidjan by the Ouattara forces. Also, are you aware of the army chief of Gbagbo taking refuge in an embassy in Abidjan?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY CARSON: Absolutely. We have confirmed reports from the South Africans themselves, who have released a statement that the chief of the army staff, General Philippe Mangou, his wife, and three children last night asked for asylum in the residence of the South African Ambassador in Abidjan. We have unconfirmed reports that the head of the gendarme has also sought asylum in another embassy, but we have not had that report confirmed.
There is a clear indication that the military forces of Gbagbo have, in fact, started to disintegrate. The rapid pace at which Alassane Ouattara’s forces have been able to move across the country from east to west and up to Abidjan suggest that there have been widespread desertions in the Gbagbo forces. The departure of his army commander lends greater credence to that.
With respect to the first part of your question, I think it would be premature and probably a little bit reckless for me to predict when Gbagbo will fall, whether it will be in the next several hours, the next several days, or the next several weeks. But it is absolutely clear that he is in a substantial and significantly weakened position, having lost most of the territory that he holds in the south and with defections among his senior military ranks.
QUESTION: Yeah. Since Gbagbo and his forces are not doing well at all, are you in conversations with Ouattara’s side about how to handle, say, the eventual capture of Gbagbo, should he be taken alive? And are you – are these talks premature or are you –
ASSISTANT SECRETARY CARSON: There is still an opportunity for Gbagbo to step aside in a fashion which will prevent widespread bloodshed and a difficult fight in Abidjan for power. We hope that he will see and seize this opportunity to step aside peacefully and encourage his supporters to lay down their arms and not to engage in urban conflict.
We are especially concerned about the youth militia, the Jeunes Patriotes, who have been manning roadblocks throughout Abidjan – undisciplined, unemployed youth who have come to the side of Gbagbo. We encourage Mr. Gbagbo, we encourage some of his senior leaders, Foreign Minister Djedje, Mr. Blé Goudé, to encourage that all of these young men who are manning roadblocks who have been accused of carrying out assassinations to lay down their weapons and participate in the reconstruction of the country.
If, in fact, there is major violence in Abidjan and Gbagbo does not step aside, he and those around him, including his wife, Simone Gbagbo, will have to be held accountable for the actions that they failed to take to stop it.
QUESTION: Wouldn’t he be held accountable anyway for the actions he’s taken until this point? I mean, he’s been responsible for a number of deaths.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY CARSON: Exactly. We’re looking and we certainly will and I think the international community will certainly hold him accountable. But he does have an opportunity, but that opportunity is slipping away.
MR. TONER: Any other questions? (No response.) Thank you. Thank you so much. That was good. Appreciate it.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY CARSON: Okay.