|A man, with body paint in the colours of the national flag, holds a Bible during a peace prayer session [Reuters]
The government of Cote d'Ivoire's incumbent leader Laurent Gbagbo has rebuffed a call for him to step down or face removal by force, before several West African presidents deliver a final ultimatum.
The three presidents - Benin's Boni Yayi, Sierra Leone's Ernest Bai Koroma and Pedro Pires of Cape Verde - arrived the commercial capital Abidjan on Tuesday and handed over the call from the West African bloc ECOWAS to resign or face military intervention.
Gbagbo's government originally said it would welcome the emissaries "as brothers and friends and listen to the message they have to convey".
But shortly before the West African leaders were expected to meet Gbagbo at about 13:00 GMT, his government warned it would not tolerate any meddling in its affairs, nor would it heed any call to make way for Alassane Ouattara, rival presidential claimant who is internationally recognised.
While doubts exist about whether the region could carry out such a military operation, Ouattara's camp remains confident that help is coming soon.
Residents remain fearful of the violence such an intervention could unleash if attempted.
Fears of violence
Dozens of people gathered on Monday outside the Nigerian embassy in Abidjan, holding signs that read: "We don't want a military intervention" and "Let Ivoirians solve Ivoirian problems".
Nigeria has the strongest army in the region and is expected to play a major role if an operation is launched to oust Gbagbo.
Afyar Elmi, a lecturer at Qatar University in Doha, told Al Jazeera he believes Gbagbo "will step down as a result of this meeting, simply because the writing is on the wall".
He cited three supporting reasons, saying "most Ivoirians will not support Gbagbo to re-ignite the civil war, even though some of them might have supported and voted for him."
Second, according to Elmi, "the will and capacity of the international community is unanimous. There is mounting pressure from international community [on Gbagbo] to not go through with his plans."
In a statement issued on Friday, ECOWAS had said: "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 Ivoirian people."
Elsewhere in Abidjan, dozens of women gathered to pray for peace after weeks of violence that have left at least 173 people dead, according to the UN.
The toll is believed to be much higher, as the UN said it had been unable to investigate reports of a mass grave because of restrictions on UN personnel movements.
"We are in trouble and we don't know what to do," Edith Esther, an Abidjan resident, said. "We are stressed - that's why we have come here to cry to God."
The UN declared that Ouattara won the presidential runoff election held nearly one month ago, but Gbagbo refuses to concede defeat and leave despite admonitions from the UN, US, EU and AU.
Ouattara's supporters had called for a general strike to step up the pressure, but shops were open on Monday and it was business as usual in central Abidjan - though the pro-Ouattara districts began shutting down in the early afternoon.
The strike was intermittently followed across the country. Bouake, the rebel capital, was a ghost town, while Gagnoa, a Gbagbo-stronghold, was open for business.
Gbagbo has been in power since 2000 and has already overstayed his mandate by five years when the long-delayed presidential election was finally held in October.
The vote was intended to help reunify the country, which was divided by the 2002-2003 civil war into a rebel-controlled north and a loyalist south.
Instead, the election has renewed divisions that threaten to plunge the country back into civil war.
While Cote d'Ivoire 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.
Source: Al Jazeera and agencies