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African leaders meet with Gbagbo to deal with Ivory Coast crisis

From Eric Agnero, For CNN
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Political stalemate in the Ivory Coast
  • NEW: Incumbent government threatens to expel some ambassadors
  • The leaders of Sierra Leone, Cape Verde and Benin are meeting with the candidates
  • Incumbent Laurent Gbagbo and challenger Alassane Ouattara both claim victory
  • West African leaders warn Gbagbo to step down or face military force

Abidjan, Ivory Coast (CNN) -- Three African presidents met with their defiant counterpart in Ivory Coast Tuesday in an effort to defuse the country's political crisis.

No details of the meeting in Abidjan, the administrative center of the conflict-torn country, were immediately available. But incumbent President Laurent Gbagbo's ministers had already signaled that the man who believed he had won Ivory Coast's presidential election had no intention of stepping down.

Presidents Yayi Boni of Benin, Ernest Bai Koroma of Sierra Leone and Pedro Pires of Cape Verde were next meeting with Gbagbo's challenger, Alassane Ouattara, who also claimed victory at the polls and who has the international community's support as Ivory Coast's legitimate leader.

The three heads of state represent the 15-member Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), which held an emergency meeting last Friday in Nigeria and delivered an ultimatum to Gbagbo: Step down or face the threat of military force.

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Gbagbo's Minister of Interior Emile Guirieoulou said Sunday the three leaders would be "received as brothers, friends."

"We will listen to them, listen to the message they are carrying," he said. "If they abide to our constitution, we're going to talk ... our constitution is not negotiable."

However, Foreign Affairs Minister Alcide Djedje said Gbagbo would not step down.

The ECOWAS delegation met earlier Tuesday with Young-Jin Choi, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon's special envoy; and a representative of the African Union.

It's unclear if ECOWAS intends to make good on its threat or what kind of force would be used. It has intervened before in Liberia and Sierra Leone.

Ivory Coast's Independent Electoral Commission, backed by the United Nations, declared opposition leader Ouattara the winner of a November runoff. But its Constitutional Council invalidated those results and declared incumbent Gbagbo the winner.

The international community, including the United States, the United Nations and the African Union, has recognized Ouattara as the winner and urged Gbagbo to cede power.

The incumbent government on Tuesday threatened to expel ambassadors of countries that recognize Ouattara's ambassadors, according to Ahoua Don Melo, the government spokesman.

Speaking on national television, he said the move would be a measure of reciprocity. The threat seems to take aim at France and Belgium. France has said it would review the credentials of an ambassador appointed by Ouattara, while Belgium has said it would recognize the Ouattara appointee.

The political stalemate has thrown Ivory Coast into crisis and scores of people have died in related violence.

A convoy of Bangladeshi peacekeepers came under attack Tuesday in Abidjan, the United Nations said. The U.N. peacekeeping mission said one soldier was slashed in the arm by a machete and a U.N. vehicle was burned.

The African Union has suspended Ivory Coast from the organization "until such a time the democratically elected president effectively assumes state power." And the World Bank has halted lending and disbursing funds to Ivory Coast and has closed its office in the country.

The U.S. Department of Defense currently has a group in Abidjan looking into the possible evacuation of U.S. citizens. State Department spokesman Mark Toner confirmed it was a "small DoD assessment team on the ground at the embassy in Abidjan to help with contingency planning."

More than 15,000 refugees have fled for neighboring Liberia, according to the U.N. High Commissioner on Refugees, a large number of them women and children.

CNN's Jill Dougherty contributed to this report.