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Gbagbo camp defiant as leaders deliver ultimatum

Source: Thomson Reuters Foundation - Tue, 28 Dec 2010 17:21 GMT
Author: (c) Copyright Thomson Reuters 2010. Click For Restrictions. http://about.reuters.com/fulllegal.asp
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* Gbagbo meets three West African presidents

* Pressure mounts on him to cede power

* Benin leader says talks went well; no details

ABIDJAN, Dec 28 (Reuters) - Three west African presidents met incumbent Ivory Coast leader Laurent Gbagbo on Tuesday to deliver an ultimatum from the ECOWAS regional bloc to step down or face removal by force.

"All went well" in the meeting, one of the leaders, Benin&${esc.hash}39;s President Boni Yayi, said as it ended. He declined to give further details.

Gbagbo&${esc.hash}39;s government has signalled he is unlikely to agree to cave to international pressure to cede power to Alassane Ouattara, considered by regional and world powers to be the legitimate winner of last month&${esc.hash}39;s presidential election.

Gbagbo&${esc.hash}39;s government officials were not immediately available to comment after the meeting. The three presidents -- Benin&${esc.hash}39;s Yayi, Sierra Leone&${esc.hash}39;s Ernest Bai Koroma and Cape Verde&${esc.hash}39;s Pedro Pires -- were due to meet Ouattara later in the day.

Gbagbo&${esc.hash}39;s camp originally said it would welcome the visiting leaders "as brothers and friends, and listen to the message they have to convey". But shortly before the meeting, his government warned it would not tolerate any meddling in its affairs.

"Let&${esc.hash}39;s avoid political delinquency. No international institution has the right to intervene by force to impose a president in a sovereign state," government spokesman Ahoua Don Melo told the BBC when asked if Gbagbo would leave.

Post-election violence has killed more than 170 people and threatens to tip the country back into civil war.

Provisional election results in the world&${esc.hash}39;s largest cocoa grower showed Ouattara winning by 8 percentage points. But the nation&${esc.hash}39;s top court, run by a Gbagbo ally, overturned the results amid allegations of fraud.

The United States and the European Union have slapped a travel ban on Gbagbo and his inner circle, while the World Bank and the regional West African central bank have frozen his finances in an attempt to weaken his grip on power.

The standoff turned violent this month after Ouattara supporters tried to seize the state broadcaster&${esc.hash}39;s building and clashed with security forces. At least 20 people were killed.

PLANNED RALLY SUSPENDED

After several days of calm, sporadic gunfire was heard on Tuesday morning in the Abidjan neighbourhood of Abobo, a stronghold of Ouattara supporters. A Reuters witness said police were chasing youths trying to set up barricades with burning tyres. It was not known if there were any casualties.

A planned mass rally on Wednesday by the powerful pro-Gbagbo "Young Patriot" movement, led by firebrand Charles Ble Goude who is also youth minister in the Gbagbo government, was suspended to allow for negotiations.

"I think the current situation benefits no one. Let&${esc.hash}39;s allow for diplomacy to run its course, that&${esc.hash}39;s why I&${esc.hash}39;m going to cancel the rally tomorrow at Place de la Republique," Ble Goude told Reuters. He said he would be announcing the suspension of the rally later on national television.

Residents and human rights groups have accused pro-Gbagbo gunmen of extra-judicial killings, kidnappings and torture since the election. The United Nations has condemned the violence.

The election was meant to heal the wounds of a 2002-3 civil war that split the country in two, but experts now fear the dispute over the results could reignite conflict.

The turmoil has pushed cocoa futures to four-month highs amid fears it could eventually disrupt exports. Ivory Coast&${esc.hash}39;s Eurobond, meanwhile, hit a record low last week on concern that the country would not meet a nearly ${esc.dollar}30 million bond payment due on Dec. 31.

Creditors will try to start negotiations with Ivory Coast in January if the country fails to pay on time, a senior debt negotiator said on Tuesday in an interview with Reuters.

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