Ivory Coast talks: 'Last-chance' mission under way

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Laurent Gbagbo greets Cape Verde President Pedro Pires (28 Dec 2010)
Image caption,
Mr Gbagbo (L) welcomed the three leaders at the presidential palace

West African heads of state have met Laurent Gbagbo in Ivory Coast in an attempt to end the crisis following the disputed presidential election.

Mr Gbagbo is refusing to make way for Alassane Ouattara, internationally recognised as the president-elect.

After the talks Benin's President, Boni Yayi, said "all went well".

He and the leaders of Sierra Leone and Cape Verde are also due to meet Mr Ouattara who is in a hotel protected by around 800 UN peacekeepers.

The three presidents - Boni Yayi of Benin, Sierra Leone's Ernest Bai Koroma and Pedro Pires of Cape Verde - arrived in the main city, Abidjan during the morning in what was seen as a final chance to step down peacefully.

They held talks with the head of the UN peacekeeping mission, Young Jin Choi, before heading for the presidential residence in Abidjan for a meeting with Mr Gbagbo.

A Sierra Leone government spokesman told the BBC that the leaders from the Ecowas regional grouping would be offering Mr Gbagbo a way of leaving without being humiliated.

Mr Ouattara's victory in the 28 November election was overturned by the Constitutional Council, a body headed by an ally of Mr Gbagbo, citing claims that results were rigged in the north.

Refugees escape

The number of people who have fled Ivory Coast for neighbouring Liberia is close to 20,000, according to the UN which says they left because of the threat of possible civil war.

The UN refugee agency (UNHCR) says 15,120 people from villages in western Ivory Coast are known to have crossed the border and another 4,000 arrivals have been reported.

Most of the refugees are said to be women and children and almost two thirds under the age of 18.

The UN has said at least 173 people have died in violence, and scores of others have been tortured.

On Monday, the African Union (AU) appointed Kenyan Prime Minister Raila Odinga as its special envoy to Ivory Coast to push for a peaceful outcome to the crisis.

Mr Odinga has said he planned to talk to Mr Gbagbo, but would wait for the outcome of the Ecowas talks before deciding his next move.

Strike bites

Buses have now stopped working in Abidjan, leaving thousands stranded at home, after Mr Ouattara called for a general strike on Monday as part of his protest, our correspondent says.

The transport unions are close to Mr Ouattara and have frequently shown the ability to paralyse the city; any drivers trying to break the strike, particularly in opposition districts, face the threat of violence, he adds.

The atmosphere in Abidjan is tense, he says; while less violent than a few days ago, everyone fears a military intervention in the coming weeks.

Ivorians had hoped these elections would close the chapter on the country's most difficult 10 years, but instead they have opened up a new period of instability, he explains.

On Monday, supporters of Mr Ouattara briefly took over the Ivory Coast embassy in Paris.

The embassy was closed on Tuesday morning and a French foreign ministry spokesman told French radio that the process for approving an ambassador chosen by Alassane Ouattara was under way.

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