Cote d’Ivoire’s internationally backed opposition assumes control over country’s embassy in France.
Gbagbo, left, met with Ernest Bai Koroma, Sierra Leone’s president, centre, and Boni Yayi, Benin’s president [Reuters]
A delegation of three West African presidents who met with incumbent Cote d’Ivoire leader Laurent Gbagbo to deliver an ultimatum to step down or face force will return to the country next week to hear his answer, officials have said.
Meanwhile, Cape Verde foreign affairs secretary Jorge Borges has said the option of a military intervention by West African countries is off the table for the moment.
“This initial mediation has helped to establish a bridge towards dialogue between the two camps, and we are no longer talking of military intervention by [the West African regional bloc] ECOWAS, which seems, thankfully, to have been set aside for the moment,” Borges told the AFP news agency.
The announcement from the Cape Verde official comes even as the military chiefs of West African countries are holding talks over the crisis in Cote d’Ivoire, according to ECOWAS director for external relations Abde-Fatau Musah.
Their talks will cover “the military planning … and the logistics” of any eventual operation, and are due to end Wednesday, he said.
The next presidential delegation meeting with the Gbagbo government will take place in early January, with Nigerian President and chief of the regional bloc ECOWAS Goodluck Jonathan saying their are set for Jan 3.
Cape Verde’s president’s office had earlier said the talks would take place on either Jan 4 or Jan 5.
West African presidents Boni Yayi of Benin, Ernest Bai Koroma of Sierra Leone and Pedro Pires of Cape Verde left Cote d’Ivoire for Nigeria, where they briefed Jonathan in Abuja.
Nigeria is the most powerful member of the 15-nation regional bloc ECOWAS, which has vowed to use “legitimate force”, if necessary, to ensure that Gbagbo steps down.
Gbagbo resists pressure
The West African presidential delegation met Gbagbo on Tuesday to deliver the ultimatum from the bloc to step down as leader of the world’s top cocoa grower or face removal by force.
Gbagbo’s government has signalled that he is unlikely to agree to bow to international pressure and cede power to Alassane Ouattara, considered by regional and world powers to be the legitimate winner of last month’s presidential election.
The Gbagbo government said it would cut diplomatic ties with countries that recognise ambassadors named by Ouattara.
On Wednesday, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon welcomed the UN envoy from Outtara’s government, Youssoufou Bamba, making him the first Ouattara government envoy to assume a diplomatic post.
“The government would like to make it known that in the light of such decisions, it reserves the right to apply reciprocity in ending the missions of their ambassadors in Ivory Coast,” the government’s spokesman said in a statement on national television.
On Wednesday, a lawyer representing Gbagbo told the AP news agency that the incumbent might agree to a power-sharing agreement, citing a previous coalition government with Prime Minister Guillaume Soro, a former rebel leader, as an illustration of his ability to compromise.
Earlier this month, however, UN chief Ban Ki-Moon ruled out any power sharing agreement as making “a mockery of democracy and the rule of law”.
Minister threatens ‘seizure’
Gbagbo’s government originally said it would welcome the visiting leaders “as brothers and friends, and listen to the message they have to convey”, but that tone has changed.
While a large pro-Gbagbo demonstration planned for Wednesday by the “Youth Patriot” movement was postponed to “give diplomacy a chance”, according to Gbagbo’s minister for youth and employment Charles Ble Goude, the cabinet member has now vowed “to liberate the Golf Hotel [Alassane Ouattara’s headquarters] with our bare hands” on Jan 1.
Shortly after the meeting with the presidential delegation on Tuesday, the Gbagbo government warned it would not tolerate any meddling in its affairs.
“Let’s avoid political delinquency. No international institution has the right to intervene by force to impose a president in a sovereign state,” Ahoua Don Melo, government spokesman, told the BBC when asked if Gbagbo would leave.
Post-election violence has killed more than 170 people and threatens to tip the country back into civil war.
In a sign of mounting tensions, a crowd attacked a United Nations convoy on Tuesday, wounding one peacekeeper with a machete and setting fire to a vehicle, according to a statement issued by the UN mission in Cote d’Ivoire.
On Wednesday, the US state department said that a small US military team was in Abidjan, studying the possibility of evacuating US citizens should the unrest in the country worsen.
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 Ivorians solve Ivorian 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 two supporting reasons, saying “most Ivorians 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.”
Use of force
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.”
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.