Gbagbo lashes out at critics

Cote d'Ivoire's president, Laurent Gbagbo, denied on Saturday that his regime was responsible for death squads reported to have killed opposition personalities and other victims, and refuted other accusations levelled against him by national and international critics.

Speaking at a press conference attended by journalists, members of the diplomatic corps and key local personalities, he also refuted accusations that his wife was involved in the death squads - the name Abidjan residents have given to armed men in military uniforms who kidnap and kill civilians at night - and said that the government had ordered investigations into the deaths.

A January report by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights stated that the death squads were responsible for the deaths of many civilians, mostly opposition activists. It noted that the squads were reportedly linked to the security forces.

No one knows for sure how many killings are to be blamed on the death squads, who have been the subject of many reports, accusations and counter-accusations in Cote d'Ivoire. Much has also been written about them in France and Gbagbo said his government would file a defamation suit against two French newspapers, Le Monde and La Croix, to get them to provide evidence of what they have called "Gbagbo's death squads".

Gbagbo also referred to efforts made by his government in the areas of human rights and impunity.

He said at least 50 people had been charged with threatening state security, adding that the government had asked the United Nations to send an international team of inquiry to investigate the death of all those who have died since the beginning of the Ivorian conflict in September 2002.

"On 5 November the Government of Cote d'Ivoire wrote a letter to the Secretary-General of the UN asking him to send urgently an inquiry team in Cote d'Ivoire," he said. It's only the day before yesterday [Thursday] that I received a positive response from the SG saying in the weeks or months to come, we will receive such a mission. I am eager for it to arrive."

He added that the government intended to have human rights violators brought before the International Criminal Court - which Cote d'Ivoire has not yet ratified - through the UN Security Council.

In response to critics who have accused the government of running a military and security apparatus comprised mainly of Gbagbo's Bete ethnic group, the president presented statistics to show that Betes were a minority in the upper ranks of the gendarmerie and military.

Gbagbo was elected in October 2000 in conditions he himself has described as "calamitous": 12 of the 19 candidates had been disqualified, and many people died as the incumbent, General Robert Guei, tried to hold on to power. The circumstances surrounding his election have been used by national and international critics to say that it was illegitimate. However, Gbagbo denied this. "I was not badly elected," he said. "I was elected, full stop!

He recalled that 37.42 percent of registered voters had cast their ballots, a rate which, he said, was "higher than in some neighbouring countries, but we never criticised them". He added that he had been elected with 59,38 percent of the vote.

Gbagbo said he was tired of what he described as intoxication campaigns aimed at tarnishing his presidency. Since taking office, he said, his government has been the target of one accusation after another, masterminded by obscure forces. Recalling that he had spent 30 years in opposition, he urged those who wanted to take his place to wait their turn and fight loyally.

"I am waiting for them in the political arena," he said. "Let's fight politically."

A copy of the UN human rights mission report