Abidjan: A trio of West African leaders handed Ivory Coast strongman Laurent Gbagbo an ultimatum -- cede power to rival Alassane Ouattara or face regional military action.
The leaders of Benin, Cape Verde and Sierra Leone 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.
Presidents Boni Yayi of Benin, Ernest Koroma of Sierra Leone and Pedro Pires of Cape Verde then drove under armed UN escort to the hotel where Ouattara`s shadow government is holed up surrounded by peacekeeping troops.
The trio 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.
But Gbagbo nevertheless 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 the internationally recognised leader of Ivory Coast, Ouattara, in the Golf Hotel resort which is the limit of the territory under his control in the commercial capital.
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."
Following this meeting, the presidents returned for a final meeting with Gbagbo to brief him on their talks with Ouattara, then 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 diplomatic battle continued, tension mounted in the streets of Abidjan, where the United Nations estimates more than 173 people have been killed in the past month.
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.v
The UN mission added that the army chief of staff loyal to Gbagbo had intervened to restore order.
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.v
Gbagbo`s regime also stepped up its war of words with former colonial power France, which he accuses of plotting with the United States to oust him and to install Ouattara, threatening to cut diplomatic ties and shut its embassy.
But Paris has already in effect cut ties with Gbagbo, having recognised Ouattara and allowed his supporters take charge of the Ivorian embassy in Paris.
Washington meanwhile dismissed a suggestion from the Gbagbo camp that it had sent in mercenaries to oust him.
The United States continued to call on Gbagbo "to respect the will of the Ivorian people" and step aside for Ouattara, said State Department spokesman Mark Toner.
But to suggest there was "some nefarious plot is ridiculous," he added.
There was one decision that might serve to lessen tension: Gbagbo`s most notorious lieutenant, Youth Minister Charles Ble Goude, called off a major street rally that he had called for Wednesday.
"There is a postponement to give ongoing diplomacy a chance," he told a news agency.
Ble Goude is under UN sanctions for inciting mob violence during anti-French demonstrations in 2004, and his "Young Patriot" supporters are potentially a potent but unpredictable weapon in Gbagbo`s arsenal.