West African leaders are meeting in Abuja to discuss how war-divided Ivory Coast should be run, after a U.N.-backed transitional government expires at the end of this month. The meeting is viewed as a crucial step in Ivory Coasts political future.
The Abuja summit is expected to set new dates for elections in Ivory Coast. The West African leaders are also expected to determine what role the present Ivorian leader, Laurent Gbagbo, will play after his mandate, which has already been extended once, finally expires on October 31.
Rebels holding northern Ivory Coast have rejected any extension of Mr. Gbagbo's mandate.
Addressing the opening session of the one-day forum on Friday, Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo, host of the summit, said it represents the best chance of resolving the crisis.
"I believe that the opportunity that we have today we will be able to utilize to our advantage, so that the decisions and conclusions we reach will lead to permanent peace, sustained security and development in Cote d'Ivoire," he said. "I will urge that the time we have in our hands, we should be insightful, we should be analytical, we should be reflective, taking into account the past, so that we can chart a new future, a future that will be in the best interest of all the people of Cote d'Ivoire."
Several African leaders have expressed fears that the situation in Ivory Coast could lead to a regional crisis.
On Thursday, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan criticized what he called "inflammatory remarks" made by Ivory Coast's ruling party chief, Pascal Affi N'Guessan. The U.N. chief said the remarks contained threats against citizens from other West African countries who live in Ivory Coast.
He stressed that those instigating violent acts will be held personally responsible by the international community, and called on Ivorian leaders to urge utmost restraint.
Tensions in Ivory Coast have risen, as rebels and the government bicker over how the world's leading cocoa-growing country should be governed after the U.N.-backed transitional government's mandate expires on October 31.
Mr. Gbagbo insists he will remain as president, until elections are held.
Ivory Coast's president is among 10 regional leaders and five high-level officials from the country who are attending the session.
ECOWAS and the African Union are expected to submit new election dates to the U.N. Security Council before October 31.
The United Nations has deployed more than 7,000 troops in the war-divided country, backed by 4,000 French peacekeepers.