Delegation leaves Ivory Coast without Gbagbo
ABIDJAN, Ivory Coast—West African leaders who delivered an ultimatum to Laurent Gbagbo to step down or face a military ouster left Ivory Coast late Tuesday without taking him into exile a month after the U.N. said he lost the disputed election.
In a sign of escalating tensions in the country, the U.N. mission said that one of its peacekeepers had been wounded with a machete when a large crowd in a pro-Gbagbo neighborhood encircled a convoy and set one of its three vehicles on fire.
The regional delegation led by presidents from Sierra Leone, Cape Verde and Benin held meetings with both Gbagbo and internationally recognized winner Alassane Ouattara, then returned to meet with Gbagbo a second time late Tuesday before leaving the country.
Gbagbo, the incumbent leader who has been in power for a decade in Ivory Coast, has shown no interest in stepping aside despite the international calls for him to go. While Ouattara has been endorsed by most of the world, Gbagbo still maintains control of Ivory Coast's military and security forces.
Weeks of postelection violence have left at least 173 people dead, according to the United Nations. The toll is believed to be much higher: The U.N. said it has been unable to investigate reports of a mass grave because of restrictions on U.N. personnel movements.
There also have been growing concerns about violence targeting peacekeepers since Gbagbo called for the U.N. mission known as UNOCI to leave earlier this month, and the U.N. said Tuesday one of its peacekeepers had been wounded.
"UNOCI vigorously condemns this attack and reiterates its determination to pursue its work in the service of the Ivorian people," the U.N. mission said in a statement.
The regional leaders had hoped to persuade Gbagbo to leave Ivory Coast with them after their one-day mission, saying he would be offered asylum in neighboring countries.
The 15-nation regional bloc ECOWAS threatened to use "legitimate force" if Gbagbo does not relinquish power though it has not publicly specified a deadline. Nigeria has the strongest army in the region and is expected to play a major role if an operation is launched to oust Gbagbo.
Ouattara's camp has been confident in recent days that such help is coming.
"It's not a bluff," one senior Ouattara adviser said Monday on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter. "The soldiers are coming much faster than anyone thinks."
ECOWAS has intervened in past regional disputes, including the seizing of Sierra Leone's capital in 1998 that forced military junta leaders to flee and allowed an elected president to return to power. ECOWAS also intervened in Liberia in 1990 and its forces stayed for several years. It has sent troops to Guinea-Bissau as well.
Some analysts feel an ECOWAS mission in Ivory Coast would entail a full-scale invasion, causing numerous civilian casualties.
The French government says its forces in Ivory Coast will protect French citizens but won't be making any decisions about an international military intervention.
U.S. State Department spokesman Mark Toner on Tuesday commended ECOWAS' leadership, and said that the United States was prepared "to take even stronger actions -- such as financial sanctions -- as needed."
"The strong, measured response from both the (African Union) and ECOWAS to the Ivorian crisis demonstrates the pre-eminent role that regional organizations play in addressing crises," he said.
Late Tuesday, Gbagbo's allies lashed out on state television at the nations that have recognized Ouattara's representatives as Ivorian ambassadors. State television can only be seen in the largest city of Abidjan as it has been yanked from the airwaves in most of the country.
Gbagbo's government "reserves the right to apply the principle of reciprocity by ending the missions of ambassadors of the countries concerned in Ivory Coast," the communique said.
Many Ivorians are terrified of Gbagbo's security forces. Human rights groups blame them for hundreds of arrests and dozens of cases of torture and disappearances since the election. A Gbagbo adviser has said he does not believe his supporters could be behind the violence.
Gbagbo has been in power since 2000 and had already overstayed his mandate by five years when the long-delayed presidential election was finally held in October, with the runoff coming in November. The election was intended to help reunify a country that was divided by a 2002-2003 civil war into a rebel-controlled north and a loyalist south.
The U.N. was tasked with certifying the results of the election as part of a peace agreement that ended the civil war.
While Ivory Coast 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.
The regional bloc ECOWAS is comprised of Benin, Burkina Faso, Cape Verde, Ivory Coast, Gambia, Ghana, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Liberia, Mali, Niger, Nigeria, Senegal, Sierra Leone and Togo.
Associated Press Writers Clarence Roy-Macaulay in Freetown, Sierra Leone; Jonathan Paye-Layleh in Monrovia, Liberia, and Matthew Lee in Washington contributed to this report.