A trio of West African leaders handed Ivory Coast strongman Laurent Gbagbo an ultimatum on Tuesday – cede power to rival Alassane Ouattara or face regional military action.
Meanwhile, in a sign of escalating tensions in the country, the UN mission said that one of its peacekeepers had been wounded with a machete when a large crowd in a pro-Gbagbo neighbourhood encircled a convoy and set one of its three vehicles on fire.
The regional delegation led by presidents from Sierra Leone, Cape Verde and Benin held meetings with both Gbagbo and internationally recognised winner Ouattara, then returned to meet with Gbagbo a second time late Tuesday.
But they left Ivory Coast late Tuesday without taking Gbagbo into exile a month after the UN said he lost the disputed election.
The leaders came to Abidjan as representatives of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), which has recognised Ouattara as the victor of last month’s Ivorian election and warned Gbagbo to stand down.
They met Gbagbo in the Abidjan official residence where he is clinging to power, surrounded by a circle of hardline advisers determined to resist a barrage of global pressure.
But Gbagbo emerged from his round of talks smiling and apparently relaxed as he escorted his international guests from the palace.
“Everything went well,” was all Yayi told reporters after these talks.
The troika then spent three hours in private talks with Ouattara in the Golf Hotel resort, where Ouatarra’s shadow government is holed up surrounded by peacekeeping troops.
Afterwards, the presidents were hustled away without speaking to reporters, but Ouattara’s spokesman said they had briefed Ouattara that they had warned Gbagbo once again that he must step aside quickly.
“They told the former president Laurent Gbagbo that … Alassane Ouattara’s status as president of the republic is non-negotiable,” spokesman Patrick Achi told reporters at the hotel.
“The matter now is to negotiate the conditions for the departure of former president Laurent Gbagbo,” he said.
“President Alassane Ouattara hopes that the envoys will return as quickly as possible.”
The regional leaders had hoped to persuade Gbagbo to leave Ivory Coast with them after their one-day mission, saying he would be offered asylum in neighbouring countries.
The 15-nation regional bloc ECOWAS threatened to use “legitimate force” if Gbagbo does not relinquish power though it has not publicly specified a deadline.
Following the meetings, the presidents left Abidjan bound for Nigeria, where they will see ECOWAS chairman President Goodluck Jonathan.
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.
As the high-level diplomatic battle continued, the streets of Abidjan – where the United Nations estimates more than 173 people have been killed in the past month – were growing ever more tense.
The United Nations said a mob had attacked a convoy of three vehicles carrying 22 peacekeepers as it travelled in a pro-Gbagbo neighbourhood.
“A large crowd encircled the convoy, wounding a soldier’s arm with a machete and setting fire to one of the three vehicles,” the UN said in a statement.
The UN mission added the situation had “returned to normal” thanks to intervention by the army chief of staff loyal to Gbagbo.
Meanwhile, the United Nations’ refugee agency said some 19,120 Ivorian refugees have fled to neighbouring Liberia since the disputed November 28 presidential run-off, including around 5,000 since Saturday.
Gbagbo has been in power since 2000 and had already overstayed his mandate by five years when the long-delayed presidential election was finally held in October, with the runoff coming in November.
The election was intended to help reunify a country that was divided by a 2002-2003 civil war into a rebel-controlled north and a loyalist south.
The UN was tasked with certifying the results of the election as part of a peace agreement that ended the civil war.
While Ivory Coast was officially reunited in a 2007 peace deal, Ouattara still draws his support from the northern half of the country, where residents feel they are often treated as foreigners within their own country by southerners.