International pressure mounted Saturday on President Laurent Gbagbo to accept defeat following the country's disputed election, a day after the constitutional council led by one of his allies overturned results deemed credible by independent observers.
Both U.S. President Barack Obama and French President Nicolas Sarkozy released statements acknowledging the victory of opposition leader Alassane Ouattara and asking Gbagbo to step aside.
"The international community will hold those who act to thwart the democratic process and the will of the electorate accountable for their actions," Obama warned.
Ivory Coast's presidential election was meant to restore stability after a civil war erupted in 2002, destroying the economy of one of the most affluent countries in Africa. Instead, the election is casting a growing shadow as it becomes increasingly clear that Gbagbo is unwilling to step down.
His five-year mandate expired in 2005 and the country's first election in a decade was delayed multiple times. Gbagbo claimed first that the West African country was too volatile and that security could not be assured. He later cited technicalities like the composition of the voter roll.
The election went ahead in October but headed to a runoff vote, and the country's election commission announced Thursday that Ouattara had won. However, new results released Friday on national television by a Gbagbo loyalist said that the incumbent president had in fact been re-elected.
The new figures put Gbagbo on top with more than 51 percent of the vote by chucking out some 500,000 ballots from Ouattara strongholds, representing almost a tenth of all the ballots cast.
Those results were broadcast in a continuous loop on TV and on radio stations throughout the country. The figures were immediately rejected by the United Nations, which is responsible for certifying the final results and which held a news conference to reiterate that Ouattara had won.
As soon as the constitutional council declared Gbabgo the victor, angry youths took to the streets, burning tires, and pulling down kiosks and billboards.
The country's constitution gives the council the final word on the outcome of the vote, but a 2007 peace deal signed by Gbagbo said the United Nations would also need to certify the results.
Young-Jin Choi, the top U.N. official in the country, made clear that the U.N. was standing by the earlier results putting Ouattara ahead.
"The results of the second round of the presidential election as they were proclaimed by the president of the Independent Electoral Commission do not change. This confirms Alassane Ouattara as winner of the second round," Choi said at a news conference attended by numerous reporters but not broadcast on local TV.
The move was met by stinging criticism from Gbagbo's camp, which issued a threat to Choi on the evening newscast.
"Mr. Choi is acting against the charter of the U.N. It's a travesty that a bureaucrat at the U.N. wants to designate the president of Ivory Coast," said Alcide Djedje, the country's permanent representative to the United Nations, who is an adviser to Gbagbo. "If he continues like this, we will ask him to leave Ivory Coast."
The 68-year-old Ouattara, a former economist for the International Monetary Fund, held his own press conference a short while later.
"The special representative of the Secretary-General just certified the results given by the Independent Electoral Commission which declares me the winner of the second round of the election," he said. "I am thus president of the Ivory Coast."
The African Union warned the government to put the nation first and to accept the results. "Any other approach risks plunging (Ivory Coast) into a crisis with incalculable consequences for the country, as well as for the region and the continent as a whole," the AU said in a statement.
The country was placed on lockdown immediately after the commission announced Ouattara's win on Thursday, with a decree read on state TV saying the nation's air and land borders had been closed and that foreign TV and radio had been banned.
Associated Press staffer Rebecca Blackwell in Abidjan and Angela Charlton in Paris contributed to this report.