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US: Gbagbo Has 'Finite Amount of Time' to Cede Power

Ivory Coast police loyal to incumbent president Laurent Gbagbo face supporters of Alassane Ouattara, who has claimed to have won last month's presidential election, during a protest in a street in Abidjan on Dec 16, 2010

A senior U.S. official says embattled Ivory Coast President Laurent Gbagbo, who has refused to cede power after an election defeat, has been given a "finite amount of time" to step down or face sanctions. The comments came after the political standoff in the West African country turned violent Thursday.

A senior official here says Mr. Gbagbo has been given what amounts to an international ultimatum to step aside and that diplomats believe the incumbent president - in power for a decade - has gotten the message.

Ivory Coast has been in political crisis for more than two weeks, after Gbagbo refused to accept the verdict of the country's independent electoral commission that he lost last month's presidential run-off election to challenger Alassane Ouattara.

Mr. Gbagbo has thus far resisted calls that he step aside.

But the senior State Department official, who spoke to reporters on terms of anonymity, said there is "strong unanimity" among concerned parties including the United States, France, the African Union, and the West African regional grouping ECOWAS that he must yield.

The official said Gbagbo has a finite amount of time, a matter of days he said, to make the "right decision" and that if he fails to do so the United States and others are prepared to follow-through with sanctions against him and close associates.

The official hinted that Mr. Gbabgbo may be close to a decision to yield, saying there are, in his words, "reasons to believe that he is getting the message."

Earlier, at a news briefing, State Department Spokesman P.J. Crowley deplored Thursday's outbreak of lethal violence in Abidjan, as troops loyal to the incumbent president and his challenger exchanged fire, amid rival street protests.

"We remain very concerned about the outbreak of violence today in Cote D'Ivoire [Ivory Coast]," said P.J. Crowley. "We understand that there are a number of injuries and as many as 18 have been reported killed. The UN operation in Cote D'Ivoire set up a field hospital to treat those who've been wounded. And we deplore the use of violence and again call on everyone to remain calm as we continue to work with the international community to help resolve this situation."

Crowley said a rocket-propelled grenade struck the outer perimeter of the U.S. embassy in Abidjan, causing minor damage but no injuries. He said the State Department is considering an evacuation of non-essential U.S. personnel from Ivory Coast but that no final decision had been made.

The senior official who spoke here said Mr. Gbagbo would have to step down and leave the country to avoid threatened sanctions.

He declined to say where he might go but said Mr. Gbagbo has "multiple homes in multiple countries" and has the "opportunity to avail himself of any one of them."