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African Union seeks peaceful end to Ivory Coast crisis

ABIDJAN – African powers launched a fresh diplomatic push for a peaceful solution to Ivory Coast’s deadly crisis Sunday, piling pressure on defiant leader Laurent Gbagbo to quit and avoid an armed intervention.

Kenyan Prime Minister Raila Odinga, named by the African Union to try to broker an end to the stand-off between Gbagbo and the man the world says beat him to the presidency, Alassane Ouattara, flew to Nigeria en route for Abidjan.

Odinga, who has previously called for Gbagbo’s removal by force, had dinner Sunday with Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan, who also heads the 15-nation Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS).

Ahead of the talks, Odinga said he would keep an open mind on finding a solution for Ivory Coast.

“We don’t want to pre-empt anything. We just want to talk to him (Gbagbo) and we will see what happens,” Odinga told AFP after he arrived in Nigeria.

“It depends on how Gbagbo wants to handle it.”

Odinga will meet the Ivory Coast strongman alongside three regional presidents returning to Abidjan on Monday on behalf of ECOWAS, a source close to the African Union told AFP.

Benin’s Boni Yayi, Sierra Leone’s Ernest Koroma and Cape Verde’s Pedro Pires have so far failed to convince Gbagbo to step down despite ECOWAS brandishing the threat of military intervention to oust him if mediation fails.

Jonathan has said ECOWAS will decide by Tuesday how to handle the impasse, which threatens to erupt into civil conflict.

West African regional military chiefs met in Abuja last week and set in motion plans to oust Gbagbo if negotiations fail, according to a Nigerian defence spokesman.

A follow-up meeting to fine-tune the “last-resort” plan is scheduled for Mali on January 17 and 18.

Tensions have risen steadily in the deadly standoff since Gbagbo and Ouattara both claimed victory in a November 28 presidential run-off vote that it was hoped would end a decade of crisis in Ivory Coast.

Gbagbo and Ouattara have fired off a series of deadlines at each other since then, with Ouattara’s latest call for Gbagbo to quit expiring unheeded at midnight on New Year’s Eve.

In return, Gbagbo’s notorious “Street General”, Minister for Youth Charles Ble Goude, urged Ivorian youths to rise up after the New Year to seize control of Ouattara’s besieged headquarters in the waterfront Golf Hotel resort.

But on Sunday, Ble Goude called off his threat, saying he wanted to give a chance to diplomatic efforts, for now.

Ble Goude told state television that several parties had asked “us to postpone our plan” to attack the hotel and “we have decided to give a chance to the negotiations that are underway.”

“But we warn those occupying the Golf Hotel that we are not prepared to accept any declaration whatsoever threatening to attack Ivorians, in which case — I make myself clear — we will come and get them, dislodge them, bare handed, from this hotel, whatever army is protecting them,” Ble Goude said.

Ouattara’s once-plush hotel is protected by a small contingent of lightly armed former rebel fighters known as the New Forces and 800 United Nations troops equipped with armoured vehicles and re-supplied by helicopter.

It is surrounded by Gbagbo’s well-armed regulars, the Ivory Coast Defence and Security Forces (FDS), but there are fears of a repeat of 2004 violence if Ble Goude makes good on his threat to send unarmed youths to storm the hotel.

Against the background of building diplomatic momentum, calls have grown for alleged massive human rights violations to be investigated, including reports of mass graves of Gbagbo’s opponents.

The UN says that at least 179 people have been killed in post-election violence but that it has been unable to fully investigate because of attacks on its personnel.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon on Saturday reaffirmed the world body’s “unwavering” support for Ouattara and said he was “alarmed by the reports of egregious human rights violations”.

The UN mission has “been instructed to do everything possible to gain access to the affected areas both for prevention and to investigate and record the violations so that those responsible will be held accountable”.

Gbagbo on Saturday accused the 9,000-strong UN peacekeeping mission ONUCI of firing on civilians, a charge denied by the UN.

The embattled leader has accused the UN force and France’s 900-strong Licorne mission of backing his rival Ouattara.

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