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December 31, 2010

Rival Ivorian Leaders Ignore Calls to Step Down

by Scott Stearns

Ivory Coast's rival leaders are ignoring calls to give up their competing claims to the presidency as regional leaders say they will decide on further steps to address the political standoff by Tuesday.

The Economic Community of West African States is backing the election of former prime minister Alassane Ouattara as Ivory Coast's new president while trying to convince his rival, the incumbent president Laurent Gbagbo, to yield power.

Three presidents from the regional group known as ECOWAS met this past week with Mr. Gbagbo in hopes of arranging his departure. They are scheduled to meet with him again on Monday. A statement from the current head of ECOWAS, Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan, said Saturday that the alliance will decide on further steps to resolve Ivory Coast's crisis after those leaders report back from their second round of talks with Mr. Gbagbo.

Regional leaders are considering the use of military force to remove Mr. Gbagbo, whose claim to the presidency is based on the country's constitutional council annulling as fraudulent nearly ten percent of all ballots cast. The United Nations certified results showing that Mr. Ouattara won the vote.

Mr. Ouattara's prime minister says Mr. Gbabgo has only a few days left in which to leave power peacefully with immunity from prosecution. Guillaume Soro told reporters that the message of ECOWAS leaders is clear and this is Mr. Gbagbo's last chance.

Mr. Gbagbo used a New Year's Eve address to say that he will remain in office. He says world leaders are planning a coup to remove him from power and told Ivorians that their greatest duty is to defend the country from attack because no one has the right to call on foreign armies to invade.

Mr. Gbagbo's youth leader gave Mr. Ouattara until Saturday to leave Abidjan, promising a march by Gbagbo supporters to seize the hotel where he and his government are protected by U.N. peacekeepers. That march did not happen.

The United States and the European Union have imposed sanctions on Mr. Gbagbo and his supporters. The World Bank and the West African central bank have cut financing in an effort to weaken his power. But Mr. Gbagbo retains the support of Ivory Coast's military and controls state-run media.

The political crisis has sent more than 18,000 Ivorian refugees across the border into Liberia. The U.N. refugee agency says it is setting up a camp to shelter those who have not been taken in by Liberian families. The World Food Program is airlifting five tons of emergency food aid to help feed the refugees.