African Union says diplomatic options remain in Ivory Coast

Despite threats from regional bloc ECOWAS that it would soon use force in Ivory Coast, leaders of the African Union said they will give mediation efforts more time.

By , Associated Press

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    Ivory Coast traditional chiefs gather to discuss the country's leadership crisis, in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, Jan. 5. The African Union's envoy said Wednesday that mediators in the Ivory Coast political crisis will 'go the extra mile' to negotiate Laurent Gbagbo's removal from power to avoid the bloodshed that would likely occur if force is used.
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The African Union's envoy said Wednesday that mediators in the Ivory Coast political crisis will "go the extra mile" to negotiate Laurent Gbagbo's removal from power to avoid the bloodshed that would likely occur if force is used.

West African leaders have threatened to use military force to oust Gbagbo, who has clung to power more than a month after the United Nations said he lost the presidential runoff vote to rival Alassane Ouattara after a decade in power.

Kenyan Prime Minister Raila Odinga, who joined three West African leaders as the African Union's envoy in recent talks, said mediation takes time, giving his own experience as an example. Kenyan political rivals disputed the presidential poll results three years ago and violence broke out killing more than 1,000 people. It took two months to negotiate an end to that crisis.

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Odinga became prime minister under a power-sharing deal with his then rival, President Mwai Kibaki. The US and others, though, have said that such a coalition government should not be considered in Ivory Coast where the UN certified election results showing Gbagbo clearly lost.

"But force, in our view, should be the last resort because as you know use of force has consequences. Lives will be lost, not just lives of soldiers but also lives of innocent civilians," Odinga told journalists in the Kenyan capital, Nairobi, following his visits to Ivory Coast and Nigeria this week. "That's really the reason why we are walking the extra mile for a peaceful resolution of this conflict."

Odinga represented the African Union when a high-level delegation went on Monday for the second time to urge Gbagbo to step down, but he rebuffed their appeal.

The delegation, which included the leaders from the nations of Benin, Cape Verde and Sierra Leone then traveled to Nigeria to meet with Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan, the current chairman of the 15-nation regional bloc ECOWAS.

ECOWAS and the African Union released a statement late Tuesday indicating that Gbagbo had "agreed to negotiate a peaceful end to the crisis without any preconditions." But the statement did not elaborate on what actions that would entail other than lifting a blockade around the hotel where his rival is based, and Gbagbo has not relinquished power. The statement also called on Gbagbo to hand over power "without further delay."

Odinga said that an amnesty deal is on the table for Gbagbo that includes guarantees he will not be prosecuted if he peacefully hands over power whether he stays in Ivory Coast or goes into exile. Such a deal will be extended to members of Gbagbo's entourage, unless they are found to have committed crimes against humanity, Odinga said.

"There will be an amnesty for him (Gbagbo) that he will not be prosecuted or persecuted in the event that he decides to remain in the country and that he will be allowed to go about his business normally," Odinga said.

U.S. State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley told journalists on Tuesday that the United States is willing to discuss granting Gbagbo exile, with conditions attached.

"If he is interested in coming to the United States – and, quite honestly, there's no indication that he is – we would entertain that as a means of resolving the current situation," said Crowley. "But, any consideration of travel to the United States would have to take into account what has happened on the ground in the past few weeks."

Despite increasing international pressure, including visa bans by the European Union and the US, Gbagbo has stayed in power with the backing of the army.

Human rights groups accuse incumbent Gbagbo's security forces of abducting and killing political opponents, though Gbagbo allies deny the allegations and say some of the victims were security forces killed by protesters.

The UN has confirmed at least 173 deaths, and says it has been barred entry from a building believed to be housing 60 to 80 of the bodies.

Associated Press writers Rukmini Callimachi in Abidjan, Ivory Coast; Bashir Adigun in Abuja, Nigeria; and Matthew Lee in Washington contributed to this report.

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