President Obama could have another international crisis on his hands before he even returns home from his holiday vacation in Hawaii.
As the president wraps up his time off with family, tensions are escalating in the West African nation of Ivory Coast, where the incumbent president is refusing to step aside in the face of pressure from international organizations which have recognized his political opponent as the winner of the last election.
Rival Alassane Ouattara had given sitting President Laurent Gbagbo until Jan. 1 to release his grip on power. But with neither side budging, officials in the country have warned about the danger of violence spinning out of control. The U.N. has already confirmed at least 173 deaths in connection with the election. One official said this past week the country is on the “brink of genocide.” Another described the impasse Friday as a “civil war situation.”
The Obama administration is monitoring and planning its next move, with embassy personnel still in harm’s way and attempts to reach Gbagbo unsuccessful.
A senior administration official confirmed to Fox News that Obama tried twice to call Gbagbo in early December to warn him that he faced sanctions if he continued to cling to power. Gbagbo did not take those phone calls, prompting Obama to instead send his warnings in a letter.
The United States has since imposed sanctions on the incumbent, along with his family and associates, but that and other international sanctions have failed to smoke him out.
Though a spokesman for Ouattara reportedly said Saturday that West African nations will have to use military force to oust Gbagbo, Obama is first dealing with the security of U.S. personnel in the country. The State Department two weeks ago ordered all non-emergency staff to get out of the country, but a team of Defense Department officials are on the ground planning for a possible evacuation of everyone left at the embassy.
State Department spokesman Mark Toner revealed this past week that the team was looking at “contingencies regarding, if there is unrest, possible evacuations.” He said the possibility is part of “prudent planning.”
That was after an errant rocket-propelled grenade hit the outer wall of the compound in Abidjan last week.
Asked for comment on the latest developments, the senior administration official referred Fox News to the president’s Dec. 3 statement on the election results. At the time, Obama said the nation was “at a crossroads” and urged Gbagbo to “acknowledge and respect this result.”
“The international community will hold those who act to thwart the democratic process and the will of the electorate accountable for their actions,” Obama said.
Obama has not tried to reach Gbagbo since the failed attempts in early December.
Much of the tension in Ivory Coast now centers around the possibility of violence at the hotel where Ouattara’s headquarters is based. That hotel is being protected by hundreds of U.N. peacekeepers, but a Gbagbo youth leader has urged supported to seize the hotel, saying that Ouattara and his prime minister had until Saturday to “pack up their bags” and leave.
Gbagbo has meanwhile claimed that world leaders are trying to launch a coup against him, describing the pressure as a “foreign attack.” The United Nations had been invited by all parties to certify the results of the Nov. 28 presidential runoff. The U.N. declared Ouattara the winner, but Gbagbo has defied the ruling and pointed to the country’s constitutional council, which declared him the winner after throwing out more than half a million votes from Ouattara strongholds.
The long-delayed presidential election this year was meant to help reunify a country which has gone through a coup and a civil war over the past 11 years. The 2002 civil war left the nation divided between the rebel-controlled north and loyalist south, though a 2007 accord officially reunited the territory.
Fox News’ Mike Emanuel and The Associated Press contributed to this report.