The United States on Tuesday denied as “absurd” allegations that it had sent mercenaries to the Ivory Coast to oust strongman Laurent Gbagbo, as tensions mounted in the presidential standoff.
“We continue to call on President Gbagbo to respect the will of the Ivorian people and to step down and let President-elect (Alassane) Ouattara assume the reins of power there,” State Department spokesman Mark Toner said.
“But to suggest that he has some nefarious plot is ridiculous,” he told AFP.
Toner said Washington would continue to work with the international community to impose sanctions on Gbagbo and his supporters as long as he clings to power.
Gbagbo and his long-time rival each declared himself president after last month’s elections, but Ouattara has been recognised as the victor by UN vote monitors and world powers as Gbagbo has refused calls to step down.
Gbagbo’s forces remain firmly in control of Abidjan, where they have been accused of killings in pro-Ouattara areas. UN rights officials say at least 173 people have died in post-election violence.
Gbagbo’s interior minister had earlier accused the United States of sending in a team of “mercenaries” under the guise of investigating a rocket-propelled grenade (RPG) that struck the embassy on December 16.
Emilie Guirieoulou said the team had in fact landed in a stronghold of the “New Forces,” northern rebel fighters loyal to Ouattara’s prime minister Guillaume Soro.
The pro-Gbagbo press said the men were Germans hired by Washington to eliminate the embattled leader.
Pentagon spokesman Major Chris Perrine said an assessment team had been dispatched from Stuttgart, Germany, where the US Africa Command is based, in order to assist the ambassador should he need to evacuate the embassy.
“The team serves as a US military planning liaison element to the US embassy, should the ambassador request an evacuation of US citizens that would require US military support,” he said.