ABIDJAN, Ivory Coast -- The World Bank said Wednesday it had frozen loans to Ivory Coast as France urged its citizens to leave the West African country amid heightened U.N. concerns the nation faced a "real risk" of returning to civil war.
The United Nations and other world leaders recognize Alassane Ouattara as the winner of the Nov. 28 runoff vote. Laurent Gbagbo, the incumbent who refuses to concede defeat and leave the presidency, said late Tuesday that "the international community has declared war on Ivory Coast."
Gbagbo said in the televised speech that he doesn't want "any blood to be spilled," but maintained he was president of the country despite international calls for him to step down. Over the weekend, he ordered all U.N. peacekeepers out of the country immediately in an escalation of tensions.
The U.N. considers Ouattara president and is staying put, raising fears that U.N. personnel and other foreigners could be targeted in violence as tensions mount. At least 50 people have been killed in recent days, according to the U.N.
The U.S. State Department has already ordered most of its personnel to leave because of what officials called a deteriorating security situation and growing anti-Western sentiment. Germany's Foreign Ministry also has recommended that its nationals leave.
French government spokesman Francois Baroin said Wednesday that French citizens who can leave Ivory Coast should do so temporarily, citing "undeniable sources of worry" in the country. At least 13,000 French people are currently believed to be in Ivory Coast, which maintains close ties to France and was once the crown jewel of its former West African colonial empire.
After a meeting in Paris with French President Nicolas Sarkozy, World Bank chief Robert Zoellick confirmed Wednesday that loans have been halted to Ivory Coast. The World Bank's aid commitment to Ivory Coast was $841.9 million as of January 2010, according to the bank's website.
"The World Bank has currently stopped lending and disbursing funds to the Ivory Coast and the World Bank's office (in Abidjan) has been closed," a statement from the agency said.
"The World Bank and the African Development Bank have supported ECOWAS and the African Union, in sending the message to President Gbagbo that he has lost the election and needs to step down," it said.
Ouattara has also sought to use financial pressure to force Gbagbo out, appealing to the West African central bank (BCEAO) to cut off his access to state coffers, making it impossible to pay civil servants and soldiers. Such a move could set the stage for mass defections and turn the tide against Gbagbo.
The latest international pressure on Wednesday to force Gbagbo out comes amid rising concerns about violence in Ivory Coast. The U.N. says that it has growing evidence of "massive violations of human rights."
Over the weekend, masked gunmen opened fire on the U.N. base in Ivory Coast, though no one from the global body was harmed in the attack. Two military observers were wounded in another attack. The U.N. also says armed men have been intimidating U.N. staff at their private homes.
Toussaint Alain, an adviser for Gbagbo, said he didn't believe soldiers or people close to Gbagbo would carry out such acts.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on Tuesday also expressed concern that peacekeepers will face a critical situation in the coming days unless Gbagbo removes a blockade around his opponent's headquarters. Hundreds of U.N. troops are protecting the hotel where Ouattara is based, but they are encircled by forces loyal to Gbagbo.
Gbagbo said late Tuesday that people could leave the Golf Hotel, but Ouattara's people say they're still not venturing out for fear of a trap. And the U.N. has said that its supply convoys are still being turned back, and that food, water and needed medication aren't getting through.
"Any attempt to starve the United Nations mission into submission will not be tolerated," Ban said Tuesday.
Ban is also worried about fighters from neighboring Liberia entering into the growing political crisis in Ivory Coast. The U.N. peacekeeping force in Ivory Coast has "confirmed that mercenaries, including freelance former combatants from Liberia, have been recruited to target certain groups in the population, he said.
Ivory Coast's 2002-2003 civil war saw the involvement of Liberians fighting on nearly all sides of the conflict. Liberia itself suffered brutal back-to-back civil wars that lasted until 2003, and the two countries share a porous, 370-mile-(600-kilometer)-long border. Liberia's president has urged citizens not to get involved in Ivory Coast's latest political crisis.
Ivory Coast was once an economic hub because of its role as the world's top cocoa producer. The 2002-2003 civil war split the country into a rebel-controlled north and a loyalist south. 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.
Experts say there are few strong options for forcing Gbagbo out of office as there is little support for a military intervention. The United States imposed sanctions Tuesday against Gbagbo, his wife and about 30 allies, and the EU also has approved sanctions. Such punitive measures, though, have typically failed to reverse illegal power grabs in Africa in the past.