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Crisis envoys meet with Gbagbo as pressure mounts

From Journalist Eric Agnero for CNN
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Laurent Gbagbo pressured to step down
  • African countries close ranks in effort to get Gbagbo to step down
  • Meeting described as "fruitful," but "discussions are still underway"
  • Ouattara told reporters Gbagbo must leave immediately

Abidjan, Ivory Coast (CNN) -- Three representatives of the Economic Community of West African States and an African Union representative met twice Monday with self-declared Ivory Coast President Laurent Gbagbo in an attempt to persuade him to step down, but there was no indication late in the day that they were near their goal.

"We had a very fruitful meeting between all parties and in a good spirit," Sierra Leone President Ernest Bai Koroma told reporters after meeting with Gbagbo for a second time Monday in his residence here. "But the discussions are still underway." He said a full statement would be issued Tuesday, though there was no indication that further meetings would be held Tuesday.

The presidents of Benin, Sierra Leone and Cape Verde, and the African Union mediator -- Kenyan Prime Minister Raila Odinga -- also met with the man the international community recognizes as the winner, Alassane Ouattara. After the meeting, Ouattara told reporters that Gbagbo must leave immediately.

The African leaders then departed Abidjan. They had indicated they were planning to fly to Abuja, Nigeria, to consult with Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan on the matter.

An election observer in the Ivory Coast's November 28 election for the Carter Center offered a dour interpretation of Monday's events. "It doesn't look like he will take an offer from these leaders today, and that's a real problem, it's a tragedy," John Stremlau, told CNNI in a telephone interview. "He is being obstinate right now."

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The leaders' apparent failure to make progress leaves the West African community with little recourse but to strengthen the U.N. presence, he said. "There has got to be a resolution of this, but it should not betray the wishes of the Ivorian people," he said.

Odinga warned Sunday that Gbagbo must step down or face military intervention by his neighbors.

He said the Ivory Coast's people "have spoken clearly" in the runoff, which international observers say Gbagbo lost to his challenger, Ouattara. Gbagbo has refused to leave office and had himself sworn in for another term.

The standoff has brought the country to the brink of renewed civil war.

"We are engaged in this to ensure there is a peaceful solution -- that we do not have to use military force to sort out matters in Cote d'Ivoire," Odinga told reporters, referring to the country by its French name.

ECOWAS has threatened to use "legitimate force" to remove Gbagbo and called a two-day meeting of its defense chiefs January 17 to plan future steps if he fails to step down by then.

Gbagbo has said he wants an an international committee to recount the vote. But the AU, ECOWAS, the United Nations, the European Union and the United States all have recognized Ouattara as president-elect and called on Gbagbo to step down.

The impasse has led to a tense standoff in Abidjan, where Ouattara has been holed up since the election with U.N. peacekeeping troops in the Golf Hotel.

On Sunday, Gbagbo cabinet minister Charles Ble Goude reversed his call for Ivorians to surround the hotel "to give a chance for peace and the negotiations that are going on." Ble Goude made the announcement on the state television network RTI.

U.N. officials had warned Gbagbo that the 9,000-strong peacekeeping mission would "repulse and defeat" any attack.

Meanwhile, 400 to 500 refugees were crossing the border daily into Liberia, putting pressure on Liberia's ability to meet their needs, Ibrahima Coly, the U.N. Human Rights Commissioner representative for Liberia told CNNI from Monrovia. "The local community and human rights organizations are working hard to see how to improve the basic services like water, like sanitation, health, and also provide them some relief items," he said.

Asked about the possibility that Liberian mercenaries might be on the ground in the Ivory Coast, Liberian Information Minister Cletus Sieh told CNN, "It is possible that some of them might want to get involved in mischief." But, he added, "We have made it very, very clear, emphatically clear, that we would not support any Liberian going to the Ivory Coast and anybody who is caught in that kind of position will be dealt with under our laws."

In Washington, a senior administration official said an offer for Gbagbo to step down and travel to the United States remained open. The official, who spoke on background because of the diplomatic sensitivity of the issue, said "If President Gbagbo is looking for a dignified exit, we remain open to help him with that, but there's no indication that he's prepared to leave at this point."

The country was wracked by civil war from 2002 to 2007, when a settlement left the country divided between north and south. The 2010 elections came with high expectations that they would open a new chapter in the country's history.

CNN Foreign Affairs Correspondent Jill Dougherty contributed to this report.