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Ivory Coast exiles set up strategic command in Ghana-UN panel

* Pro-Gbagbo exiles hire mercenaries from Ghana, Liberia-panel * Ties between Ghana and Ivory Coast have been strained * Gbagbo backers said trying to recruit Islamists in Mali By Louis Charbonneau

UNITED NATIONS, Oct 9 (Reuters) - Exiles supporting Ivory Coast's former president Laurent Gbagbo have established a base in neighboring Ghana from which they are working to destabilize the current Ivorian government, according to excerpts from a new report by a U.N. expert panel.

The supporters of Gbagbo, who is in The Hague awaiting trial for crimes against humanity, have a "military structure," have hired mercenaries in Ghana and Liberia and have established several training camps in eastern Liberia, the report said.

"They (Ivorian exiles) have established a strategic command in Ghana," it said, adding that the exiles' goal was to "destabilize" the government in Ivory Coast and return to power.

The observations were contained in an interim report from the so-called U.N. Group of Experts, which monitors compliance with the Ivory Coast sanctions regime.

The group plans to discuss its report with members of the U.N. Security Council's Ivory Coast sanctions committee on Friday, U.N. diplomats said.

Excerpts and information from the report, which also mentioned some less serious potential violations of the U.N. sanctions regime by the Ivorian government, were given to Reuters by a U.N. official and Security Council diplomats.

The experts' findings would appear to add credence to allegations made by the Ivorian authorities that top military and civilian officials in the former regime, many of whom fled across the border at the end of a brief conflict last year, are continuing their fight against the government of President Alassane Ouattara from Ghanaian soil.

The experts said that some of pro-Gbagbo field commanders sported exotic battle names like "Western Tarzan" and "Bob Marley."

Ivory Coast announced on Monday that it would reopen its eastern border with Ghana, more than two weeks after it was shut over a series of deadly attacks Ivorian officials said were launched from Ghanaian territory.

Ghana has said the pro-Gbagbo exiles are political refugees and has promised to help investigate the attacks launched from its territory, which worsened ties already strained by Accra's refusal to act on international arrest warrants targeting former members of Gbagbo's regime issued by Ivory Coast last year.

Gbagbo's refusal to accept defeat in a 2010 election won by Ouattara sparked a brief war last year that killed more than 3,000 people.

ATTEMPTS TO RECRUIT MALI ISLAMISTS

The experts' report said pro-Gbagbo supporters were also looking to operate from Mali, which descended into chaos in March when soldiers toppled the president and left a power vacuum that enabled Tuareg rebels to seize two-thirds of the country. Islamist extremists, some al Qaeda allies, hijacked the revolt in northern Mali.

"In mid July 2012, a meeting took place in Takoradi (Ghana) where various ... groups supporting Gbagbo united their efforts and defined a course of action with a view of returning to power in Cote d'Ivoire, including the development of a political and military strategy to identify possible bases of operations in neighboring countries such as Mali," the report said.

It said that pro-Gbagbo elements appeared to be attempting to recruit Islamist rebels in Mali and were also encouraging the country's military junta to help destabilize Ivory Coast.

The report said there were contacts between Gbagbo backers and Ansar Dine, an Islamist group among those in control in northern Mali. Ansar Dine is aligned with al Qaeda and promotes adherence to strict Islamic law.

Asked why the supporters of Gbagbo, a Christian, would be aligning themselves with Islamists, a U.N. official told Reuters on condition of anonymity: "The enemy of my enemy is my friend."

The West African regional group ECOWAS is planning a military intervention to end the Islamists' control of northern Mali, although it has yet to receive the necessary authorization from the U.N. Security Council. The council has asked ECOWAS for a clearer outline of its strategy.

The experts' report on Ivory Coast also said Ouattara's government may have violated the U.N. arms embargo still in place by importing military radio equipment, uniforms and knives.

It said there had been smuggling too of Ivorian cashew nuts and cocoa to Ghana, and possibly skimming off of oil revenues. This was not necessarily financing pro-Gbagbo elements but was diverting financial resources away from the government.

U.N. sanctions on Ivory Coast have been in place since 2004 and also include restrictions on the export of rough diamonds.

(Editing by David Brunnstrom)

((louis.charbonneau@thomsonreuters.com)(+1-212-355-6053))

Keywords: IVORYCOAST GHANA/UN