Côte d'Ivoire

New Ivory Coast row sparks vote delay fears

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* Commission declines comment on fraud accusation

* UN urges quick resolution to avoid poll delay

(Adds diplomat, ICG, details)

By Tim Cocks

ABIDJAN, Jan 11 (Reuters) - The ruling party of Ivorian President Laurent Gbagbo called for the electoral commission chief to resign on Monday, casting doubt on whether Ivory Coast will be able to hold long-delayed post-war polls on time.

It accused Robert Mambe, a member of the opposition Democratic Party of Ivory Coast (PDCI), of fraud in drawing up a voter list and called for his prosecution.

Mambe told Reuters he would not yet comment on the claims.

No authority has questioned him or charged him but as Ivory Coast approaches an election nearly five years overdue, the last thing most war-weary Ivorians want to see is a political spat causing further delays.

In a statement on Saturday, Gbagbo accused the electoral commission (CEI) of failing to deal thoroughly with all contested cases, saying it had admitted some 429,000 voters who may be illegitimate.

His party took that accusation a step further on Monday.

"Officials at the CEI had already reported the existence of a vast operation of fraud in the electoral list conducted by Robert Mambe," wrote Affi N'Guessan, president of Gbagbo's Ivorian Popular Front (FPI) party in the state-owned Fraternite Matin daily.

"These reports ... damage not only the credibility of the CEI but the honour of Ivory Coast."

N'Guessan also said the electoral list must be reaudited and the contestation period be extended, something which could scupper the current poll schedule.

Mambe declined to comment on the accusations, telling Reuters: "I've decided not to speak, for the moment. There will be a moment when I speak, but not now."

The commission said on Sunday it had settled legal disputes over a provisional voter list, the last hurdle to drawing up a final list for polls set for the end February or start March.

The polls are seen as vital if Ivory Coast is to reclaim its position as West Africa's economic hub, lost after a 2002-3 war plunged the country into crisis and scared business away.

OBSTACLES

Badly needed reforms of an ailing cocoa sector, which supplies 40 percent of global demand, hinge on the elections.

Six million Ivorians registered to vote in a poll meant to reunite the country, half of which is still run by rebels.

A million of those names were contested, many on grounds of nationality. Disputes over this thorny issue were largely what fuelled the war in the first place.

The U.N., which runs an expensive peacekeeping mission in Ivory Coast, urged Gbagbo and CEI to resolve the issue.

"(The U.N.) ... calls upon all actors to do whatever possible so that this incident will not create new delays," said spokesman Hamadoun Toure.

The CEI has come under pressure to speed up the electoral process but Gbagbo has urged patience, saying he wants to see it done properly rather than rushed. Critics say he is slowing the process to drag out his mandate, a charge he denies.

"Gbagbo enjoys throwing obstacles in the way," said Richard Moncrief of International Crisis Group's West Africa office.

"He's discrediting the electoral commission -- and, well, maybe he won't have to use that discredit. But maybe he will."

A Western diplomat in Abidjan said there were genuine questions about the way the appeals process on the contested votes was handled, including poor training, but that there had been cross checks.

Reuters - Thomson Reuters Foundation
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