‘Last chance’ for Ivorian leader

West African heads of state have begun their mission in
Ivory Coast aimed at bringing an end to the crisis following the disputed
presidential election.

Leaders from Sierra Leone, Benin and Cape Verde are
holding talks with Laurent Gbagbo, the incumbent who insists he won the poll.

They are expected to give Mr Gbagbo a final chance to
step down peacefully.

He is refusing to make way for Alassane Ouattara, who has
been internationally recognised as the president-elect.

The three presidents – Benin’s Boni Yayi, Sierra Leone’s
Ernest Bai Koroma and Pedro Pires of Cape Verde – arrived in the main city,
Abidjan during the morning.

They held talks with the head of the UN peacekeeping
mission, Young Jin Choi, before heading for the presidential residence in Abidjan
for a meeting with Mr Gbagbo.

A Sierra Leone government spokesman told the BBC that the
leaders from the Ecowas regional grouping would be offering Mr Gbagbo a way of
leaving without being humiliated.

Ivory Coast is different from Liberia and Sierra Leone.
It is a functioning wealthy country with a strong army, so a force will meet
some credible resistance.

Furthermore, it doesn’t look as if Ecowas is capable of
putting a credible force on the ground: Nigeria is heading towards elections
and may not want to put in troops for that long a time; Ghana has elections in
2012 and Senegal has its own problems with dynastic succession. So the key
countries that would have to contribute may not have the political stomach and
the temerity.

I would have thought an emphasis on sanctions, bank
accounts, no-fly zones, seizure of properties – total isolation on the
continent – would have been a first step.

But it looks as if there has been a hastiness to
demonstrate that “we can deal with Gbagbo” – and in doing so Ecowas,
the African Union and the United Nations have actually closed too many doors
that limit their options for engagement and manoeuvre.

After the meeting with Mr Gbagbo, they are expected to
make their way to Mr Ouattara who is in an Abidjan resort with his shadow
government, protected by about 800 UN peacekeepers.

Mr Ouattara’s victory in the 28 November election was
overturned by the Constitutional Council, a body headed by an ally of Mr
Gbagbo, citing claims that results were rigged in the north.

The number of people who have fled Ivory Coast for
neighbouring Liberia is close to 20,000, according to the UN which says they
left because of the threat of possible civil war.

The UN refugee agency (UNHCR) says 15,120 people from
villages in western Ivory Coast are known to have crossed the border and
another 4,000 arrivals have been reported.

Most of the refugees are said to be women and children
and almost two thirds under the age of 18.

The UN has said at least 173 people have died in
violence, and scores of others have been tortured.

On Monday, the African Union (AU) appointed Kenyan Prime
Minister Raila Odinga as its special envoy to Ivory Coast to push for a
peaceful outcome to the crisis.

Mr Odinga has said he planned to talk to Mr Gbagbo, but
would wait for the outcome of the Ecowas talks before deciding his next move.

Buses have now stopped working in Abidjan, leaving
thousands stranded at home, after Mr Ouattara called for a general strike on
Monday as part of his protest, our correspondent says.

The transport unions are close to Mr Ouattara and have
frequently shown the ability to paralyse the city; any drivers trying to break
the strike, particularly in opposition districts, face the threat of violence,
he adds.

The atmosphere in Abidjan is tense, he says; while less
violent than a few days ago, everyone fears a military intervention in the
coming weeks.

Ivorians had hoped these elections would close the
chapter on the country’s most difficult 10 years, but instead they have opened
up a new period of instability, he explains.

On Monday, supporters of Mr Ouattara briefly took over
the Ivory Coast embassy in Paris.


The embassy was closed on Tuesday morning and a French
foreign ministry spokesman told French radio that the process for approving an
ambassador chosen by Alassane Ouattara was under  way.

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