World leaders criticise court decision to overturn provisional election results and declare incumbent president winner.

World leaders have criticised a decision by Cote D'Ivoire's constitutional court to reverse the results of last week's presidential election, warning that it could plunge the country back into civil war.

Friday's decision to dismiss thousands of votes for Alassane Ouattara over fraud allegations paves the way for Laurent Gbagbo, the incumbent, to take office on Saturday despite apparently losing the run-off election.

The move has outraged Ouattara's supporters, prompting fears that Cote D'Ivoire's tentative peace process could unravel and the country could slip back into conflict.

Electoral officials had initially declared Ouattara the winner of the November 28 poll with 54.1 per cent of the vote. But the result was overturned by the court on Friday after hundreds of thousands of votes in areas loyal to Ouattara were thrown out over fraud allegations.

The UN, which is responsible for certifying the election results as part of the peace deal that ended the last bout of fighting in the country, has said that it considers the initial election valid.

The top UN representative in the country said he had "absolute confidence that there is only one winner - Mr Alassane Ouattara".

International anger

World leaders, including Barack Obama, the US president, have also come out in support of Ouatarra, calling on Gbagbo to respect the will of the people and step down.
Laurent Gbagbo will take office on Saturday, despite losing last week's election [Reuters]

"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 in a statement.

The African Union has called for the government to put the nation first and to accept the election results. "Any other approach risks plunging [Cote D'Ivoire] 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 two candidates represent the two sides that fought a civil war in 2002, and both have powerful armed backers. Ouattara has the support of former rebel fighters in the country's north, while Cote D'Ivoire's military supports Gbagbo.

"We are ready to carry out any mission that he wants to give us," General Philippe Mangou said on state television, after being shown visiting Gbagbo with other senior officers.

Al Jazeera's Yvonne Ndege, reporting from Abidjan, the country's largest city, said there had already been incidents of violence on the streets in reaction to the court's decision.

"Those outbreaks of violence that people had feared, particularly amongst supporters of the opposition leader, Alassane Ouattara, have started to break out across Abidjan," Ndege said.

"From my hotel room alone, I saw four plumes of black smoke, thick black smoke. And what we're told by people on the ground is the supporters are on the rampage, burning houses, burning public buildings, burning tyres. They're furious that Laurent Gbagbo has been declared the president."

New conflict

Ouattara's aides have warned that if the decision is allowed to stand, the constitutional court will be responsible for "the next war in the Ivory Coast".
Alassane Ouattara won 54 per cent of the vote, but a top court overturned his victory [AFP]

Sebastian Spio-Garbrah, an Africa analyst, said that the depth of the crisis will depend on whether African leaders present a unified front in dealing with the situation.

"If they don't split, and if they can force the two leaders into a room, they might be able to negotiate a national unity government," he said, adding that any deal would have to be made this weekend.

Gbagbo's last term elapsed in 2005 but he repeatedly postponed the election, claiming first that the country was too volatile and that security could not be assured, and later over technicalities like the composition of the voter roll.

It had been hoped that the poll, the first in a decade, would restore stability to Cote D'Ivoire and reunite a country split into north and south by a 2002 to 2003 war.

But that goal appears to be unravelling fast. The country is now under lock down with land, sea and air borders closed by the military, and foreign television and radio signals jammed.

Both the army and UN peacekeepers have been patrolling the streets of Abidjan since Sunday, and there are fears that Gbagbo's inauguration later on Saturday could trigger further unrest.

Al Jazeera and agencies