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The disputed president of Cote d'Ivoire, Laurent Gbagbo, has said that he is ready to talk to rival Alassane Ouattara, who was recognised by the UN and other international observers as the winner of Nov 28 presidential runoff poll.

The incumbent president has also invited a panel from the African Union and other countries, including China, Russia and the European Union, to re-examine the results of the polls, though he has vowed to stay on as president.

Gbagbo's demand that the UN and French peacekeeping forces leave the country remains in place, and on Tuesday he said that "the international community has declared war on Ivory Coast".

However, the UN Security Council has defied this and on Monday extended the mandate for the force - known as UNOCI - for six more months.

Meanwhile, Nicolas Sarkozy, the French president, has urged French citizens to leave the country if they had the means to do so.

Civil war fears

Ban Ki-moon, the UN secretary-general, has said that forces loyal to Gbagbo have tried to blockade the UN mission in Abidjan, the Cote d'Ivoire's commercial hub, and that the country faces a "real risk" of returning to civil war.

Ban made the comments on Tuesday when briefing the UN General Assembly, and called on member states to prepare supplies to help the mission.

UN peacekeepers are guarding the headquarters of Ouattara at the Golf Hotel in Abidjan.

The pro-Gbagbo Constitutional Council overturned results certified by the UN mission that made Ouattara the winner of the poll.

Gbagbo remains in control of both the military and the media, while Ouattara's reach remains severely restricted.

'Critical situation'

"The intention of Mr Gbagbo and the security forces loyal to him is clearly to blockade the United Nations peacekeeping mission and to suffocate the government of President-elect Ouattara," Ban said.

"We cannot allow this."

Ban said that forces had blocked UN patrols, denied customs clearance of supplies at Abidjan port and prevented delivery of supplies for more than 800 UN troops and police at the Golf Hotel in the city.

"I am concerned that this disruption of life-support supplies for the mission and the Golf Hotel will put our peacekeepers in a critical situation in the coming few days," he said.

"I therefore strongly appeal to member states who are in a position to do so to prepare to support the mission to assist with the continued flow of supplies."

Ban said UN role "is now even more critical'" for the stability of the West African country and the region.

'Mercenaries'

He added that the UN force "has also confirmed that mercenaries, including freelance former combatants from Liberia, have been recruited to target certain groups in the population".

Alain Le Roy, the UN peacekeeping chief, also said that he was concerned that groups linked to Gbagbo might be preparing strikes against the UN peacekeepers.

He added that mercenaries may have been recruited from Angola. UNOCI was attacked on Saturday and returned fire.

International panel invited

Gbagbo gave a public address on Tuesday stating that an international committee, headed by the African Union, would be welcomed to look into the electoral dispute.

"I don't want another war, I don't want any more Ivorian blood to be spilled," Gbagbo said.

"I am therefore ready to welcome a committee ... headed by the African Union, involving ECOWAS, the United Nations, United States, the European Union, Russia and China, which will have permission to analyse objectively the facts of the electoral process ... to solve this crisis."

The Cote d'Ivoire is the world's biggest cocoa producer.

Source: Agencies