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African leaders head to Ivory Coast to mediate crisis

A panel of five African presidents is heading to Ivory Coast Friday to mediate the political crisis. The news emerged as the UN stated that it has halted plans for a refugee camp in the west due to the escalating violence.


AFP - Five African leaders charged with resolving the Ivory Coast presidential dispute met Friday ahead of a new mediation bid, as the UN halted work on a refugee camp because of increasing insecurity.

Former colonial power France meanwhile called for a UN Human Rights Council probe into reports of large-scale human rights abuses amid growing violence as Laurent Gbagbo continued to defy calls to cede the presidency.

The presidents, in talks in Mauritania's capital Nouakchott, have been tasked by the African Union (AU) with resolving the three-month-old dispute as fears grow it could flare into civil war.

TALKING POINTS: Is there any way out of crisis in Ivory Coast?

As well as Mauritanian President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz, it includes presidents Jacob Zuma from South Africa, Idriss Deby Itno from Chad, Blaise Compaore from Burkina Faso and Tanzania's Jakaya Kikwete.

But several mediation bids have already failed.

"This meeting indicates our determination to explore all the options making it possible to resolve in a peaceful and consensual manner the crisis that threatens the survival, even the existence, of Ivory Coast," said Aziz.

The issue was linked to regional stability and the "preservation of the democratic characteristics of our continent," he said.

The panel was expected to fly to the main city in Ivory Coast, Abidjan, directly after their meeting.

They met for a first time on the dispute in Nouakchott on February 20, travelling afterwards to Abidjan to meet Gbagbo and Alassane Ouattara -- the internationally recognised president.

But there was no announcement of any breakthrough.

Compaore did not make the trip, citing his own security after allegations by the Gbagbo camp that he supports Ouattara.

The AU has given the group of heads of state until the end of this month to find solutions "binding" on the two camps.

Gbagbo, in power since 2000 and refuses to accept that he lost a November 28 presidential election.

He has resisted sanctions and threats of military intervention from the West African regional body ECOWAS to try to force him to step down.

The United Nations says related violence has left around 50 people dead this week, with 365 killed since mid-December. Tens of thousands have fled unrest, including after clashes last week in Abidjan's pro-Ouattara Abobo suburb.

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees announced Friday the violence had forced it to halt plans to build a camp for displaced people in western Ivory Coast and to suspend its activities there.

Spokeswoman Melissa Fleming said some 70,000 people had been displaced in the west, where there have been heavy clashes around the towns of Duekoue and Blolequin.

"And we're not operating there any more unfortunately due to the fighting and the insecurity," Fleming told reporters in Geneva.

Aid agency access was also being choked off in Abidjan, where the number of displaced people has now reached 200,000, she said.

France, among the countries that recognises Ouattara, called for a "credible and impartial" international probe into allegations of atrocities.

"France would like the Human Rights Council to take up the situation in the Ivory Coast as quickly as possible," foreign ministry spokesman Bernard Valero said.

Gbagbo controls the armed forces, called the Defence and Security Forces (FDS), as well as Abidjan and the all-important cocoa exports.

Ouattara enjoys international diplomatic support, and the backing of a northern former-rebel army, the New Forces, but has been unable to gain control of the key levers of state.

Abobo residents accused FDS troops of shooting dead six women in an anti-Gbagbo protest Thursday, a charge the force denied in a statement on state television as "of course untruthful and baseless."

But the United Nations mission directly blamed the FDS Friday.

"Seven women were shot dead by the FDS," its human rights deputy director Guillaume Ngefa told AFP. "Six women died on the spot and the seventh died in hospital," he said.


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