Three West African presidents arrived in Ivory Coast Tuesday with an ultimatum for the country's incumbent leader, Laurent Gbagbo, who has resisted international pressure to step down after a disputed presidential run-off against Alassane Ouattara.
AFP - A trio of West African leaders tried Tuesday to persuade Ivory Coast strongman Laurent Gbagbo to stand down, brandishing the threat of force if he refuses to cede power to rival Alassane Ouattara.
The leaders of Benin, Cape Verde and Sierra Leone held talks with Gbagbo at the presidential palace, warning that troops from around the region could be sent to topple Gbagbo from the helm of the world's top cocoa producer if he remains defiant.
Presidents Boni Yayi of Benin, Ernest Koroma of Sierra Leone and Pedro Pires of Cape Verde also began talks with Ouattara at a hotel where he and his supporters have been holed up during the country's political crisis.
Gbagbo emerged from the talks smiling and appearing relaxed as he escorted the mediators from the palace.
A top Gbagbo aide meanwhile said a rally of young supporters scheduled for Wednesday had been indefinitely postponed in a bid to support diplomatic efforts.
"There is a postponement to give ongoing diplomacy a chance," Charles Ble Goude, minister for youth in Gbagbo's unrecognised government, told AFP.
Ouattara spokeswoman Anne Ouloto welcomed the postponement, saying: "We congratulate Mr. Ble Goude for this wise decision, but he must go further and encourage Mr. Gbagbo to peacefully step aside."
The rally had raised concerns of increased unrest in Ivory Coast, which is locked in a political stand-off with both Gbagbo and Ouattara claiming to have won last month's presidential election.
Although the three mediators said no more to reporters in Abidjan, Benin's Foreign Minister Jean Marie Ehouzou said the aim of their mission was to persuade Gbagbo "to leave office without delay".
The three are not Gbagbo's fiercest critics within the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), a regional bloc, but are armed with a resolution demanding he cede power signed by more powerful figures such as Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan.
The impact of the turmoil on the region was highlighted when the United Nations' refugee agency said some 19,120 Ivorians had fled to neighbouring Liberia since the November 28 poll, including around 5,000 since Saturday.
There seems little chance of Gbagbo backing down, however, as he continues to insist he is the legally elected leader of Ivory Coast and has warned that ECOWAS' threat of military action could plunge the region into war.
Emile Guirieoulou, Gbagbo's interior minister, said the three heads of state would be welcomed as "brothers, as our friends" but added that they had to respect Ivory Coast's sovereignty.
Speaking to reporters before he flew out of Cape Verde, Pires said there had so far been no real attempt to reach a lasting solution to the crisis.
"For the time being I do not see any attempt towards resolving the conflict in a sustainable manner. Instead, I see that all approaches are aimed at satisfying immediate interests," Pires said.
"I am very concerned because the perception I have is that Ivory Coast is slipping towards a very complicated situation."
The visit comes the day after Gbagbo appeared to have seen off one challenge when a general strike call from Ouattara was slow to take effect, but suffered a setback when his Paris embassy fell to Ouattara supporters. The embassy was closed "until further notice" on Tuesday.
Both Gbagbo and his long-time rival have had themselves declared president, but Ouattara has been recognised as the president by UN vote monitors and world powers.
Gbagbo's forces remain firmly in charge in Abidjan, where they have been accused of carrying out killings in pro-Ouattara areas. UN rights officials say at least 173 people have died in post-election violence.
Ouattara's shadow government is under siege in an Abidjan resort, protected by 800 UN peacekeepers, but unable to move beyond the grounds.
Date created : 2010-12-28