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Gbagbo orders UN peacekeepers to leave Ivory Coast

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Gbagbo orders UN peacekeepers to leave Ivory Coast

(Audio available further in this article)

ABIDJAN, Ivory Coast — The man who refuses to step down from the presidency ordered thousands of U.N. peacekeepers to leave Ivory Coast immediately on Saturday, calling the global body that has endorsed his political rival an "agent of destabilization."

The move was the latest act of political defiance by Laurent Gbagbo, who has been in power since 2000 and maintains he is the rightful winner of last month's runoff vote in the West African nation despite growing international pressure on him to concede defeat.

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 The statement read on state television came just two days after as many as 30 people were killed in street violence in Ivory Coast. Earlier Saturday, masked gunmen opened fire on the U.N. base; no one from the U.N. was harmed in the attack.

Gbagbo's spokeswoman said Saturday that the U.N. mission known as UNOCI has not remained neutral in the election dispute and accused it of arming the New Forces rebels allied with opposition leader Alassane Ouattara.

The United Nations certified results showing that Ouattara had won by "an irrefutable margin." The U.N. had been invited by the country itself to supervise the vote and certify the outcome following a peace accord after Ivory Coast's 2002-2003 civil war.

"The state of Ivory Coast considers that the UNOCI has shown itself to be guilty of serious misconduct, which indubitably proves that it is an agent of destabilization and contributes to the further division of the Ivorian people," she said.

In New York, U.N. peacekeeping chief Alain Le Roy was holding an emergency meeting of his department's crisis team to discuss a response to Gbagbo's request, said a U.N. official, speaking on condition of anonymity.

It remains unclear what weight Gbagbo's demand would have since the U.N. doesn't consider him to be president. There are about 9,000 U.N. peacekeepers in the country, and about 800 of them have been protecting the compound from which Ouattara is trying to govern the country.

Gbagbo also called for the departure of about 900 French forces who have been supporting the U.N. peacekeepers.

While the United States, France and the African Union have endorsed Ouattara as the rightful winner of the election, Gbagbo maintains control of both the military and state media.

Earlier Saturday, masked men in military uniforms opened fire on the U.N. base after following guards back from a patrol, the U.N. mission said. No one at the U.N. was harmed in the shooting.

The six armed men in a civilian vehicle shot at the patrol as it entered the mission compound early Saturday and continued firing along the wall of the compound, the U.N. mission said in a statement. The U.N. guards returned fire.

Saturday's violence comes just two days after as many as 30 people were killed during violent protests. Ouattara called on his supporters on Thursday to seize key state institutions that Gbagbo has refused to let go of. Police and troops loyal to Gbagbo prevented Ouattara's supporters from marching on government buildings Friday.

International pressure is growing on Gbagbo to give up his claim to power in this nation that was once an economic hub because of its role as the world's top cocoa producer. The civil war split Ivory Coast in a rebel-controlled north and a loyalist south, and many had hoped that the election would help reunite the country.

While the country officially reunited in a 2007 peace deal, Ouattara still draws his support from the northern half of the country where he was born while Gbagbo's power base is in the south.

Gbagbo claimed victory in the presidential election only after his allies threw out half a million ballots from Ouattara strongholds in the north, a move that infuriated residents there who have long felt they are treated as foreigners in their own country by southerners.

National identity remains at the heart of the divide. The question of who would even be allowed to vote in this long-awaited election took years to settle as officials tried to differentiate between Ivorians with roots in neighboring countries and foreigners.

Ouattara had himself been prevented from running in previous elections after accusations that he was not Ivorian, and that he was of Burkinabe origin.

By MARCO CHOWN OVED Associated Press

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