ABIDJAN, Ivory Coast — The internationally recognized winner of Ivory Coast's presidential election is asking for special forces to launch a commando operation to remove the country's defiant sitting president who has refused to cede power five weeks after losing the vote.
Hunkered down at a hotel guarded by United Nations peacekeepers, Alassane Ouattara told The Associated Press on Thursday that Laurent Gbagbo would try to flee if the regional Economic Community of West African States, or ECOWAS, sent in troops to oust him.
"I know Mr. Gbagbo," Ouattara said on the lawn of the lagoonside hotel. "If he sees that ECOWAS troops are coming to capture him, believe me he will start running away. I know him well. He does not have the courage to face those type of situations."
While the U.N. and other world powers recognize Ouattara as the winner of the Nov. 28 presidential runoff, Gbagbo has refused to step down, insisting he was the victor. The political standoff has paralyzed this once prosperous country, the world's largest cocoa producer, and tensions over the outcome have sparked violence, with the U.N. confirming at least 173 deaths.
While ECOWAS has threatened military action against Gbagbo, African leaders in recent days have shied away from making a commitment, fearing mass casualties and a possible return to civil war in the nation that was divided by such bloodshed after a civil war that erupted in 2002.
Ouattara, 68, addressed those concerns in the AP interview, saying that if West African nations "do send in special forces with the objective of removing Mr. Gbagbo, he will be removed, without much damage."
An ECOWAS military operation would not take much time or many resources, and Gbagbo would cave in immediately, said Ouattara, who is protected at the hotel by U.N. peacekeeping troops.
Gbagbo's location can be quickly identified by a team of elite troops because he "is essentially at his residence or at the presidential palace," Ouattara said. He added that elite forces have carried out similar operations in Latin America and Africa "to remove the person who is the problem."
Nigeria, Africa's most populous nation and the strongest of ECOWAS' 15 members, has a large military and the kind of special forces that Ouattara is calling for. But participation of Nigerian commandos would require the approval of Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan, who as recently as Tuesday said more time is needed to resolve the Ivory Coast standoff.
At home, Ouattara has been confined to the grounds of the resort hotel and has been barred access to the institutions of power, including the presidential palace located across the lagoon where Gbagbo has continued to hold Cabinet meetings. But abroad, Ouattara has succeeded in exerting his influence, including asking some 20 countries to no longer recognize Gbagbo's ambassadors. In recent weeks, both Britain and Canada have asked the Ivorian diplomats there to leave.
In a tit-for-tat late Thursday, Gbagbo's government announced that they were expelling both the British and the Canadian ambassadors in Ivory Coast, said Pascal Affi N'Guessan, the president of Gbagbo's party and one of his top advisors.
"The ministry of foreign affairs has decided to apply the principle of reciprocity following what has happened to our ambassadors," he said. "They will be asked to leave in the same condition that ours are being asked to leave."
The order does not directly impact the British ambassador because he covers several West African countries and is based in Ghana – not Ivory Coast.
Immediately after the announcement, Canadian Foreign Minister Lawrence Cannon issued a statement saying that since Canada does not recognize Gbagbo as the president of Ivory Coast, they will not take into account the expulsion order.
"Canada does not recognize Laurent Gbagbo's claim to government. As such his request is illegitimate," Cannon said.
Some analysts question whether ECOWAS could carry out any military operation in Ivory Coast without a full-scale invasion and civilian casualties. Kenyan Prime Minister Raila Odinga, who is the African Union's envoy to Ivory Coast, said Wednesday that a military ouster should be only a last resort.
Also on Thursday, the U.S. Treasury Department has barred Americans from doing business with Gbagbo and members of his inner circle as punishment for his refusal to relinquish power.
A Treasury statement said Americans cannot have financial dealings with Gbagbo, his wife, N'Guessan, and allies Desire Tagro and Foreign Minister Alcide Djedje. Any assets they have in the U.S. are now frozen.
Simon Munzu, head of the U.N. human rights division in Ivory Coast, said negotiations were continuing to try to resolve the political crisis.
"Let's give negotiations a chance," he added. "If that fails, and the African Union and ECOWAS and U.N. decide that there is grounds to use force, well we'll have to wait and see."
An ECOWAS spokesman in Nigeria has said the bloc would draw up plans for military action to oust Gbagbo. While it supposedly has a standby force to use, it still must call on countries to contribute soldiers and arms for an operation, said David J. Francis, a professor at the University of Bradford in the United Kingdom.
Francis, who has studied ECOWAS' previous interventions, said any such call-up would depend heavily on soldiers from oil-rich Nigeria, but he added: "There is no stomach for military intervention."
Gbagbo came to power in 2000 and ruled during the civil war, then overstayed his legal term, which expired in 2005. The vote was rescheduled at least six times before it was finally held.
At a pro-Gbagbo rally, one of his closest associates warned on Wednesday that any attempt to remove the 65-year-old incumbent by force will lead to war.
"We need to avoid that the Third World War begins in Ivory Coast. ... No army in the world can come in and remove our president," said Charles Ble Goude, who heads the Young Patriots, a militia-like organization.
Associated Press writers Jon Gambrell in Lagos, Nigeria and Rob Gillies in Toronto contributed to this report.