The United Nations has confirmed that it has drawn up a list of people accused of human rights abuses in Cote d'Ivoire who could eventually face trial, but UN Secretary General Kofi Annan said the names would remain secret for the time being in order not to jeopardise any future legal action.
Radio France Internationale (RFI) reported last week that the UN had named 95 people in a blacklist that formed a secret annex to a still unpublished UN report on human rights abuses committed during Cote d'Ivoire's two and a half-year-old civil war.
It said key personalities on the blacklist included Simone Gbagbo, the wife of President Laurent Gbagbo, who is also the parliamentary leader of his Ivorian Popular Front (FPI) party and Guillaume Soro, the head of the New Forces rebel movement.
RFI said the president's wife was accused of organising death squads, while Soro was charged of ordering extrajudicial killings.
Speaking on the sidelines of the African Union annual summit in Nigeria on Sunday, Annan confirmed the existence of the list, but he refused to say which names appeared on it.
"Yes, there is a list, but it has not been published yet for very simple reasons: If the accused have to go to court, then we do not want to jeopardize the case," Annan told reporters in the Nigerian capital, Abuja. "So, we are not going to publish the list but give it to a prosecutor."
"From that moment on, if the prosecutor decides to publish names, you will find out who is on the list, (but) the United Nations will not publish the list," he added.
Cote d'Ivoire erupted into civil war after a failed coup in September 2002, and the West African country has been divided ever since, with the government running the south and the rebels controlling the north.
Human rights abuses have been widely reported throughout the conflict, ranging from mass executions and the creation of shadowy death squads to the incitement of hatred and violence against ethnic groups viewed as being rebel sympathisers.
One diplomat at UN headquarters in New York said that the latest human rights report was so confidential that diplomats were not being given copies of it. Those authorised to consult the document were merely allowed to read it and take notes, the source told IRIN by telephone.
Prosecutors for the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague have said they plan to send a team to Cote d'Ivoire to prepare for a possible investigation.
Cote d'Ivoire signed the Rome Statute which created the ICC in 1998, but it has yet to ratify the agreement. However, the court's chief prosecutor, Luis Moreno Ocampo, said the Ivorian government had given the green light for an inquiry team to travel to the country.
"They simply accepted our jurisdiction to investigate in the country," Ocampo told a news conference in Johannesburg on Friday. "So we are going to go there."
Reuters quoted Ocampo as saying that the Ivorian declaration
referred to atrocities which the government alleges were committed by rebels at the start of the conflict. But it quoted him as adding that government officials could also face eventual prosecution if ICC investigations implicated them too.
Meanwhile in Abidjan, some of those reported by RFI to be on the blacklist, shrugged off the accusations.
"I am not concerned by all this," Gbagbo's defence and security adviser, Bertin Kadet, told the government-run newspaper
Fraternite Matin. "I have nothing to reproach myself for. I am a citizen, I cannot afford to fund death squads," he added.
Bertin is a former defence minister who is widely viewed by diplomats as the real power behind Gbagbo's military strategy.
Rebel leader Soro said he vigorously refuted what he called "unfounded accusations."
"Our struggle is for democracy and freedom. If it is in the name of that combat, and as leader of the New Forces that I have been cited, I will take full responsibility," he told reporters in the rebel stronghold Bouake.
"But neither the fear of sanctions, nor the fear of international justice will ever force me to falter, nor to make compromises which could put the lives of millions of our compatriots in danger," he added.
Charles Ble Goude, the head of the militia-style Young Patriots movement of hardline Gbagbo supporters, said he wanted to wait for official notification by the UN that he appeared on the list.
"For the moment this report is not yet official," he told Agence France Presse. "I am waiting to be told officially of the accusations against me."
The Ivorian government said it was angry about the way in which the information had leaked out to the public.
"The names were published the day before the adoption of a draft resolution aimed at reinforcing the (UN arms) embargo, and also the day before the AU summit. All this just appears like a well-prepared orchestration," Philippe Djangone Bi, Cote d'Ivoire's ambassador to the UN, told RFI.
The UN Security Council is set to vote on a resolution to tighten an arms embargo on Cote d'Ivoire by giving the 10,000 UN and French peacekeepers in the country the authority to stop and search vehicles without notice. The draft resolution also asks the Ivorian government army and the New Forces rebel movement to provide an inventory of their weapons within a month.
The Council delayed the vote by three days to Monday so it would not preempt decisions at the 30-31 January AU summit in Abuja, where the faltering peace process in Cote d'Ivoire was one of the key items on the agenda.
South African President Thabo Mbeki, acting on behalf of the AU, is the latest figure to try to revive a two-year-old peace agreement in Cote d'Ivoire that has never been implemented in full.
However, after three months of shuttle diplomacy, he has failed to achieve a breakthrough and the stalemate between Gbagbo and the rebels looks stronger than ever .
At the AU summit, Annan appealed once more for Cote d'Ivoire's politicians to commit to themselves to peace.
"The government of national reconciliation has to come together and to work," he said in Abuja. "What happens in Cote d'Ivoire does have an impact in the region and we do not want another regional conflict as we have in the Great Lakes."