West African leaders say a promise by Ivory Coast's incumbent president to resolve his country's political crisis peacefully does not remove the threat of a regional military force to drive him from office.
The Economic Community of West African States says incumbent President Laurent Gbagbo must yield power to the internationally-recognized winner of Ivory Coast's election or be forced out by a coalition of regional troops.
Mr. Gbagbo agreed to negotiate, without preconditions, following talks this week with ECOWAS heads of state and the African Union mediator to the crisis. But he has not yet agreed to hand over power to former prime minister Alassane Ouattara, who has not left a United Nations-protected hotel since the electoral commission declared him the winner of November's vote.
So the regional threat of force to remove Mr. Gbagbo remains.
"Let me say, without any equivocation, that a military option is still on the cards," said James Gbeho, the president of the ECOWAS alliance. "However, ECOWAS and AU are telling you now that, even if there is a half-percent chance of resolving the problem peacefully, they will exploit it. And, their initial contacts with both President Gbagbo and President Ouattara indicated some promise of getting them to agree on certain essential elements in order to obviate the force option."
Mr. Gbagbo still controls the army, so a fight for control of Abidjan would be costly, especially as there are many citizens of countries likely to contribute troops to an ECOWAS military force who live in Ivory Coast and might then become targets of Gbagbo militants.
Gbeho says regional leaders understand the difficulties in mounting such a force, but will not hesitate to do so if the crisis cannot be resolved peacefully.
"We, of course, are aware of the dangers in the force option, particularly in a country like Cote d'Ivoire where almost all citizens and ethnic groups of our ECOWAS region are represented. And so, it is an option that must be used with a lot of circumspection," he said. "But, if push comes to shove, that is what is going to be used."
African mediators have also made clear that there can be no power-sharing deal here. They insist that Mr. Ouattara is the duly-elected president and Mr. Gbagbo must go.
So the primary focus of further talks appears to be arranging Mr. Gbagbo's departure. American officials have discussed his moving to the U.S. state of Georgia, where he has relatives.
But so far, Mr. Gbagbo says he is not going anywhere and is using state-run media to portray near-unanimous international support for Mr. Ouattara, as evidence of a plot against the Gbagbo government.