Abidjan: The man who refuses to leave Ivory Coast`s presidency faced new threats to his grasp on power after regional leaders threatened to remove him by force if necessary.
Meanwhile, the UN`s refugee agency said on Saturday that at least 14,000 Ivorians have fled the chaos of their homeland, trekking for days to reach safety in Liberia.
Diplomatic pressure and sanctions have left Laurent Gbagbo increasingly isolated though he has been able to maintain his rule nearly a month after the disputed vote because of the loyalty of security forces and the military.
Even that, though, may disappear if he runs out of money to pay them.
Late on Friday, West Africa leaders from the 15-country regional bloc ECOWAS — the Economic Community of West African States — threatened to send military intervention into Ivory Coast if incumbent Gbagbo refuses to step down peacefully.
"In the event that Mr Gbagbo fails to heed this immutable demand of ECOWAS, the Community would be left with no alternative but to take other measures, including the use of legitimate force, to achieve the goals of the Ivorian people," said a statement from ECOWAS.
James Gbeho, president of ECOWAS said the group of West African leaders was making an "ultimate gesture" to Gbagbo to urge him to make a peaceful exit.
The 15-nation regional bloc of West African states made the decision following a six-hour emergency summit in Abuja, Nigeria, on Ivory Coast as worries mounted that the country that suffered a 2002-2003 civil war could return to conflict.
Gbeho said the bloc would send in a high-level delegation to meet with Gbagbo, and tell him to step down, but did not give details as to when the delegation would go or a deadline for Gbagbo.
The threat of force came on the tail of another serious international reproach, this one from the West African economic and monetary union, which called on the regional central bank to cut off Gbagbo`s access to state coffers.
Gbagbo`s spokesman Ahoua Don Mello on Saturday denounced the decision by the union to give Ouattara`s government signing privileges on state accounts. He called the move "illegal and manifestly beyond their competence”.
The meeting of regional finance ministers that issued the freeze "overstepped its stated prerogatives by interfering in the internal affairs of a member state of the union”, Mello said on state television on Friday evening.
Gbagbo`s government has denied rumours that state salaries wouldn`t be paid, and in spite of the financial freeze, civil servants received their paychecks the day before Christmas Eve. But senior diplomatic sources, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue, say that Gbagbo only has enough reserves to run the state for three months, setting the scene for a drawn-out standoff.
Ivory Coast is the world`s biggest cocoa grower, producing 40 percent of the world`s supply. While a cocoa embargo might have a more immediate impact on Gbagbo`s ability to govern, European and American business interests prevent this from being seriously considered, said African security analyst Peter Pham.
"A cocoa embargo isn`t even on the table," said Pham, who is the Senior Vice President of the National Committee on American Foreign Policy in New York.
The threat of military intervention may add enough pressure to bring about a swifter resolution, said Pham, though he questioned whether a force could be brought together quickly enough to have an impact.
"Nigeria — the only real military power in the AU — is unlikely to have the stomach for a drawn-out military escapade on the eve of their own Presidential Election," he said. Nigerian elections will be held in April next year.
Gbagbo has refused to step down from the presidency despite international calls for his ouster from the UN, US, former coloniser France, the European Union and the African Union. The international community recognises Alassane Ouattara as the winner, though Gbagbo maintains control of the national military.