Raila Odinga, far right, said the rivals have "broken the ice" and have conditionally agreed to meet [Reuters]

The rival political leaders in Cote d'Ivoire have agreed on a face-to-face meeting to try to break the deadlock and resolve the country's worsening political crisis over the November 28 presidential runoff.

Raila Odinga, the Kenyan prime minister and African Union envoy, said Laurent Gbagbo and Alassane Ouattara "have broken the ice".

"They [Gbagbo and Ouattara] have agreed to meet face-to-face but under certain conditions," he told the AFP news agency by telephone from Abuja on Tuesday.

But Ouattara's camp quickly ruled out any direct talks with Gbagbo, with an aide, Ali Coulibaly, saying the assertion was "completely false".

Odinga spoke shortly after African leaders were to debrief Goodluck Jonathan, the Nigerian president and current leader of regional bloc, ECOWAS, on their mission to Cote d'Ivoire, or Ivory Coast as it was previously known, a day earlier.

"We had useful discussions with the parties in Ivory Coast. It was a useful beginning. More efforts have to be made to achieve peace in Ivory Coast," Odinga said.

He was part of a four-member African delegation that held talks with Gbagbo and Ouattara in Abidjan on Monday.

The mediators from Benin, Cape Verde and Sierra Leone on Monday offered Gbagbo a final chance to cede power to Ouattara, who is internationally recognised as the winner of the presidential elections.

Speaking after Tuesday's debriefing, Jonathan said the Cote d'Ivoire crisis "is still a stalemate" and that the parties "are dialoguing".

"Anything that has to do with crisis in a nation... takes time," he said. "Don't expect that if there is a major crisis in a country, you just jump in in one week and that matter is resolved. It takes a lot of international pressure to convince people like that."

Forced removal

ECOWAS has threatened to use military force to oust Gbagbo, who has clung to power more than a month after the United Nations said he lost the presidential runoff vote to Ouattara after a decade in
power.

"ECOWAS will need to use all the means at its disposal including the use of legitimate force so that the president that was elected can assume his functions"

Alassane Ouattara, presidential claimant

The delegation's first effort last week to force him into exile failed, and there were no signs that Gbagbo had softened his position in Monday's visit by the three West African presidents and Odinga.

West African regional military chiefs met in Abuja last week and set in motion plans to oust Gbagbo if negotiations fail, according to a Nigerian defence spokesman.

A follow-up meeting to fine-tune the "last-resort" plan is scheduled for Mali on January 17 and 18.

The Ouattara camp says the mediation had failed, as Gbagbo remained defiant in the face of international pressure.

"For us, the discussion is finished. They had presented Gbagbo with an amnesty deal if he steps down," Ouattara said after Monday's meeting.

"ECOWAS will need to use all the means at its disposal including the use of legitimate force so that the president that was elected can assume his functions."

Nearly all African leaders have backed Ouattara. But Angola, the only African nation to send an ambassador to Gbagbo's swearing in, accused foreign nations of "inciting other countries in the region to start a war".

The United States and the European Union have imposed a travel ban on Gbagbo and his inner circle, while the World Bank and the regional West African central bank have frozen his finances in an attempt to weaken his grip on power.

The UN has said Gbagbo may be criminally responsible for human rights violations, including killings and kidnappings by security forces since the election.

More than 170 people have been killed since the disputed election. The crisis threatens to restart fighting in a country still divided by a 2002-03 civil war.

Source: Agencies