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Ex-I.Coast president Gbagbo warns of 'disaster' in upcoming vote

2 min 50Approximate reading time

Former Ivorian president Laurent Gbagbo, in his first public comments since being toppled in 2011, said that Saturday's presidential election spelt "disaster" for the troubled country and called for dialogue.

In an interview broadcast Thursday on the French channel TV5 Monde, Gbagbo said: "What awaits us is disaster. This is why I am speaking out. People should know that I am against heading for disaster with our hands tied. We have to talk."

Gbagbo, 75, made the interview in Belgium, where he is awaiting the outcome of proceedings against him by the International Criminal Court (ICC) arising from a civil war sparked by his refusal to accept electoral defeat in 2010.

Gbagbo was forced out by forces loyal to Alassane Ouattara, who at the age of 78 is controversially seeking a third term in office.

Anger at his decision to run again has triggered lethal clashes and revived ethnic friction, prompting many Ivorians to fear a return to the violence of 2010-11, when the country split along north-south lines and around 3,000 people lost their lives.

Gbagbo retains a powerful following in Ivory Coast but has been barred by the country's paramount court, the Constitutional Council, from contesting the elections on legal grounds.

He was handed a 20-year jail term in absentia by an Ivorian court last November over the looting of the Central Bank of West African States during the 2010-11 crisis.

Tensions in the runup to the vote focus in particular on Ouattara's decision to seek a third term after being elected in 2010 and again in 2015. The constitution allows only two presidential terms.

Earlier this year, he vowed to hand on the baton to a new generation, but his plans were torpedoed in July when his anointed successor, Prime Minister Amadou Gon Coulibaly, died suddenly of a heart attack.

Ouattara reversed course, claiming that a 2016 revision to the constitution reset the presidential term counter to zero.

- 'Talk! Negotiate!' -

The opposition want Ouattara to withdraw his candidacy and are demanding an overhaul of the national electoral board and Constitutional Council, which it says are stacked with his loyalists.

They have called for "civil disobedience". Political clashes, which have also spilled out into violence between ethnic groups, have claimed around 30 lives over the last three months.

Gbagbo said "I understand (the anger) and I share it."

But, he said, dialogue was essential.

"Talk! Negotiate! Speak to one another!" he exclaimed.

"There is still time to do it, to talk. I would like to tell Ivorians that in this fight over the third term, I, Laurent Gbagbo, former head of state, former prisoner of the ICC, am resolutely on the side of the opposition.

"I say, in the light of my experience, that there has to be negotiations!"

Referring to his long years of official silence, he said, "Since I was arrested on April 11, 2011, I haven't spoken (publicly) except during questioning at the ICC."

"I waited to be in Ivory Coast before speaking... but the quarrelling has placed us in an abyss... If I remain silent, it would be irresponsible, so I have decided to speak out."

- Pre-election fear -

Dozens of other would-be candidates have also been rejected by the Constitutional Council, leaving Ouattara frontrunner.

The main opposition figures are former president Henri Konan Bedie, 86, and former prime minister Pascal Affi N'Guessan, 67, although neither has been on the campaign trail.

Ouattara on Thursday staged a final rally, arriving by helicopter to enthusiastic supporters in his Abidjan stronghold of Abobo.

"Go out and vote as one on Saturday, deliver a knockout blow," he declared, referring to an overall majority in the first round that would obviate the need for a runoff vote.

Around 35,000 members of the security forces are to be deployed on Saturday to prevent violence.

A young trader was stabbed to death in Abidjan late Wednesday, and several cars set on fire.

The opposition have accused the authorities of using armed youths dubbed "microbes" to destabilise their campaign.

The allegation has been thrown back by the authorities, who say the toughs are being orchestrated by the opposition.

There seemed to be a sizeable exodus of people leaving the city, the economic hub of this country of 25 million people, ahead of polling day.

Dozens of people, clutching bags and suitcases, were waiting for buses at Adjame station, which serves domestic routes.

"I am leaving today given what happened last time (in 2010-2011). I'm afraid. I'm going back to my family," said one traveller, Sandrine Dia Amoin, who was heading for the capital Yamoussoukro.

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