Plea for military help as violence follows disputed African election

A leading opponent of Ivory Coast's president has called for an international military operation to force him from office as the country threatened to slide into civil war.

Laurent Gbagbo has refused to step down after a disputed election which he is accused of rigging, despite the United Nations and world leaders recognising Alassane Ouattara as the winner of the November 28 runoff vote.

His prime minister, Guillaume Soro, yesterday urged the UN, European Union, African Union and others to consider intervening to push out Mr Gbagbo.

"It is obvious that there is one solution left – that of force," Mr Soro said.

He added that "200 people have so far been killed by the bullets of Liberian and Angolan mercenaries".

The UN said that at least 50 people have been killed but there appears to be little international interest in a military intervention. The United States and the European Union are imposing sanctions targeting Mr Gbagbo, his wife and political allies.

Hundreds of UN peacekeepers have been protecting the hotel where Mr Ouattara is based.

Over the weekend, Mr Gbagbo ordered all UN peacekeepers out of the country immediately in an escalation of tensions. The UN is staying put, raising fears its personnel and other foreigners could be targeted.

The United States State Department has already ordered most of its staff to leave amid growing anti-Western sentiment. Germany's Foreign Ministry also has recommended its nationals leave while the British Government is warning against all travel to the country and for British nationals inside Ivory Coast to leave as soon as practicable, if safe to do so.

France also urged its citizens to get out of the former colony for their own safety.

At least 13,000 French people are believed to be in Ivory Coast, which maintains close ties to France and was once the crown jewel of its former West African colonial empire.

After a meeting in Paris with French President Nicolas Sarkozy, World Bank chief Robert Zoellick also confirmed that loans have been halted to Ivory Coast.

"The World Bank and the African Development Bank have supported (regional bloc) ECOWAS and the African Union, in sending the message to President Gbagbo that he has lost the election and needs to step down," he said.

Mr Ouattara has also sought to use financial pressure to force Mr Gbagbo out, appealing to the West African central bank (BCEAO) to cut off his access to state coffers, making it impossible to pay civil servants and soldiers. Such a move could set the stage for mass defections and turn the tide against Mr Gbagbo.

The latest international pressure to force him out came amid rising concerns about violence. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said that Ivory Coast faces "a real risk" of return to civil war.

Over the weekend, masked gunmen opened fire on the UN base, although no one was harmed in the attack. Two military observers were wounded in another attack. The UN also says armed men have been intimidating UN staff at their private homes.

The UN chief also has expressed concern about fighters from neighbouring Liberia entering into the growing political crisis in Ivory Coast. The UN force has "confirmed that mercenaries, including freelance former combatants from Liberia, have been recruited to target certain groups in the population," he said.

Ivory Coast's 2002-2003 civil war saw the involvement of Liberians fighting on nearly all sides of the conflict. The two countries share a porous, 370-mile border.

Ivory Coast was once an economic hub because of its role as the world's top cocoa producer.