Africa

Ivory Coast crisis: Gbagbo to negotiate 'peaceful' end

Ivory Coast's Laurent Gbagbo has agreed to negotiate a "peaceful end" to his country's crisis without preconditions, regional leaders say.

The chairman of the Ecowas regional group said Mr Gbagbo had also agreed to immediately lift the blockade around the temporary headquarters of his presidential rival Alassane Ouattara.

The UN regards Mr Ouattara the winner of November elections but Mr Gbagbo, the incumbent, refused to cede power.

Ecowas has threatened to force him out.

The BBC's John James in Ivory Coast's business capital, Abidjan, says it is important not to over-emphasise the importance of Mr Gbagbo's statement.

Mr Gbagbo has given no indication he is willing to step down, our correspondent says.

Mr Ouattara, who is holed up in a hotel protected by UN peacekeepers, has said he is willing to talk, as long as the internationally agreed election results are accepted by Mr Gbagbo.

Presidential visits

The chairman of the Ecowas Commission, James Victor Gbeho, said after an extraordinary session of members in Abuja, Nigeria: "Laurent Gbagbo agreed to negotiate a peaceful end to the crisis without any preconditions.

"He also pledged to immediately lift the blockade around Hotel du Golf, the temporary headquarters of Mr Alassane Ouattara, the president-elect.

"On his part, Mr Alassane Ouattara indicated his willingness to ensure a dignified exit for Mr Gbagbo provided the latter accepted the outcome of the presidential election as declared by the independent electoral commission and certified by the United Nations."

The statement followed a visit to Ivory Coast by Presidents Boni Yayi of Benin, Pedro Pires of Cape Verde and Ernest Bai Koroma of Sierra Leone - representing Ecowas (Economic Community of West African States).

It was their second trip to Abidjan in less that a week. On Monday they were joined by Kenyan Prime Minister Raila Odinga, representing the African Union (AU).

Mr Odinga said power-sharing was not an option and that Mr Gbagbo had no choice but to negotiate an exit.

"We have had this transition for far too long where the incumbents lose elections and refuse to accept the verdict of the people and then eventually negotiate a power-sharing arrangement. We don't want this to become the norm on the African continent," Mr Odinga said.

He said military intervention remained possible as a "last option".

However, some doubt the region's willingness to carry out this threat given the unpredictable response of the Ivorian army, which publicly continues to support Mr Gbagbo.

Mr Gbeho said: "We are aware of the dangers in the force option, particularly in a country... 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."

President Goodluck Jonathan of Nigeria had earlier described the situation as a "stalemate", adding: "Don't expect that if there's a major crisis in a country that we just jump in... and the matter is resolved."

The 28 November election was intended to reunify the country - the world's leading cocoa producer - which has been divided since a 2002 conflict.

Mr Ouattara was initially proclaimed the winner by the country's election commission - a verdict backed by the UN, which helped organise the poll.

But the Constitutional Council, headed by an ally of Mr Gbagbo, later ruled that he had won, citing voting irregularities in the north of the country.

The north is controlled by the New Forces, a former rebel movement that supports Mr Ouattara.

Both men have been sworn in as president.

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