I Coast`s Gbagbo agrees to talks in fight for presidency

Strongman Laurent Gbagbo has said that he is open to talks with his rival but not ready to give up the Ivory Coast presidency.

Abidjan: Hopes of a breakthrough in the Ivory Coast political crisis are dim since strongman Laurent Gbagbo has assured that he was open to talks with his rival but not ready to give up the Ivory Coast presidency.

A proposal for talks was delivered Monday, as regional leaders mulled military intervention, by Kenyan Prime Minister Raila Odinga on a fresh round of mediation to persuade Gbagbo to step down and end a seven-week standoff that has left scores dead and raised fears of civil war.

There was "an offer of dialogue between the two camps. It was accepted... a meeting depends on the response of the (Alassane) Ouattara camp", Gbagbo government spokesman Ahoua Don Mello said.

Ouattara, recognised as winner of the November 28 election by the Ivory Coast`s voting authority and the international community, did not immediately comment.

Gbagbo has said before that he is willing to talk with his rival but he has refused all offers to give up the presidency, including exile and immunity from prosecution for crimes against humanity.

The leader of the world`s top cocoa-producing nation for 10 years, Gbagbo was declared the election victor by the Constitutional Council. He retains control of the presidential palace and the army.

Odinga, mediator for the African Union which has said that Gbagbo must go, was initially optimistic about his latest round of negotiations and awaiting replies to proposals made Monday, his spokesman Salim Lone said.

But he later said Odinga would be leaving early on Wednesday morning after a news conference.

"He has been in touch but nothing definite has happened as now," said Lone. He earlier said Odinga would leave if there was no "significant" development.

"He has no current plan to come back but he would certainly come back if he was needed. He is not giving up for sure. He is very determined to settle this in a peaceful way. The alternative is not a very attractive one," Lone said.

Pro-Ouattara suburbs of Abidjan were shut down by a general strike against the Gbagbo Tuesday but elsewhere in the city it was business as usual, AFP reporters said.

"We are tired of these disruptions... We want to go about our business," complained a woman in the Abobo suburb where public transport was disrupted, and shops and schools shut.

Regional military chiefs opened two days of talks in Mali that will finalise a last-ditch plan to use force to remove Gbagbo if necessary.

The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) officers would work off a report drawn up in December that envisages Nigeria at the head of a possible regional intervention force, a participant told AFP.

"Our preparations are very advanced and we are ready to move into action if necessary and that must be clear," senior Nigerian officer Olusegun Petinrin said.

The ECOWAS chairman, Nigeria`s President Goodluck Jonathan, said in a statement that the group wanted a peaceful resolution to the impasse but said, "we have not changed the position we took during our last summit", when the threat to use force was made.

Jonathan said "the votes of citizens must count after they are cast, or democracy will not take hold in the continent", the statement said.
French Foreign Minister Michele Alliot-Marie meanwhile warned: "The use of force should only be considered as a very last resort because given the balance of the armed forces there would be the risk of a high number of casualties."

More than 200 people have been killed in clashes since the contested election.
The United Nations Security Council delayed a vote due Tuesday to send 2,000 extra troops into Ivory Coast, diplomats said. It was not immediately known how long the delay would last.

The number is the maximum requested by UN commanders fearing a growing showdown with Gbagbo, who has demanded several times that UN forces leave. The new deployment would take the UN force up to about 11,500 troops.


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