Customers queue to withdraw money outside a bank in Abidjan, as an exodus of foreign banks from the Ivory Coast turned a political crisis into financial meltdown.

Abidjan - Ivory Coast's incumbent leader, who refuses to cede power, has seized four major international banks that had shut down operations this week in the West African country.

A spokesman for sitting president Laurent Gbagbo read a decree on state TV late on Thursday saying that the banks did not respect the law and closed without proper notice. According to Ivorian law banks have to give three months notice.

Ahoua Don Mello said the government had taken over the offices for Britain's Standard Chartered, France's BNP-Paribas and Societe Generale along with US bank Citibank. These banks hold a majority of the bank accounts for civil servants.

Gbagbo's government would nationalise the banks and would pay February salaries, Don Mello said. It is unclear, however, if Gbagbo will have access to the banks' funds.

Nine private banks began shutting down earlier this week including Nigeria's Access bank. France's Societe Generale, the country's largest financial institution, announced it was shuttering all 47 branches of its local subsidiary serving 230 000 clients.

The international community had said it would use financial sanctions to dislodge Gbagbo, who is refusing to step down although results issued by his country's election commission and certified by the United Nations showed he had lost the November 28 ballot by nearly nine percentage points. Among the sanctions slapped on Gbagbo's regime was the revocation of his signature on state accounts at the regional central bank which prints the currency used in Ivory Coast.

Once that happened late in January, the Gbagbo government was no longer able to make deposits into the private banks where government salaries are cashed.

The move was expected to prevent almost all government employees from receiving their salaries. Panicked people gathered in lines this week desperately seeking to take out their savings in fear of a cash shortage.

Diplomats and analysts have been wagering that once civil servants stop receiving their pay, they will defect en masse away from Gbagbo. He is still backed by the army which has brutally cracked down on supporters of opposition leader Alassane Ouattara, who has been unable to assume office even though he is internationally recognised as the winner of the election.

Don Mello also said that the government had ordered the heads of the two French banks to report to the minister of economy on Friday morning in Abidjan. - Sapa-AP