West African leaders consult on Ivory Coast crisis

Abuja–A trio of West African leaders are to meet Nigeria's president Wednesday following their mission to Ivory Coast, where they pressed strongman Laurent Gbagbo to step down or face military action.

The leaders of Benin, Cape Verde and Sierra Leone met Gbagbo Tuesday in Abidjan to deliver a blunt ultimatum from the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS).

They warned him to cede power to rival Alassane Ouattara or face regional military action.

But Gbagbo, surrounded by a circle of hardline advisers in the Abidjan official residence where he is clinging to power, appeared determined to resist mounting international pressure.

Presidents Boni Yayi of Benin, Ernest Koroma of Sierra Leone and Pedro Pires of Cape Verde flew out of Abidjan overnight Tuesday to meet with the chairman of ECOWAS, Nigeria's President Goodluck Jonathan, in Abuja.

Nigeria not only holds the rotating ECOWAS presidency but, as West Africa's biggest economic and military power, would also be expected to provide a large part of any regional force set up to force Gbagbo out.

During their visit to Abidjan the three ECOWAS envoys also held lengthy talks with Alassane Ouattara, widely recognised by the international community as the legitimate winner of last month's presidential run-off with Gbagbo.

Ouattara and his shadow government are holed up in a hotel surrounded by peacekeeping troops.

"They told the former president Laurent Gbagbo that…Alassane Ouattara's status as president of the republic is non-negotiable," Ouattara's spokesman Patrick Achi told reporters Tuesday.

"The matter now is to negotiate the conditions for the departure of former president Laurent Gbagbo."

The envoys know that tension is mounting in Abidjan, where the United Nations estimates more than 173 people have been killed in the past month.

On Tuesday, a mob attacked a convoy of three vehicles carrying 22 peacekeepers as it travelled in a pro-Gbagbo neighbourhood, injuring one soldier and burning one of the convoy's vehicles, said a UN statement.

The army chief of staff loyal to Gbagbo had to intervene to restore order, the statement added.

They know too that civilians are already fleeing the country, for fear of a future conflict.

Figures from United Nations' refugee agency said some 19,120 Ivorian refugees have fled to neighbouring Liberia since the disputed 28 November presidential run-off, including around 5000 since Saturday.

Washington meanwhile has dismissed a suggestion from the Gbagbo camp that it had sent in mercenaries to oust him.

The United States maintained its call for him "to respect the will of the Ivorian people" and step aside for Ouattara, said State Department spokesman Mark Toner Tuesday.

But to suggest there is "some nefarious plot is ridiculous," he added.

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