, ABIDJAN, Dec 28 – Ivory Coast strongman Laurent Gbagbo faces a fresh challenge Tuesday as three regional presidents arrive in the West African nation to deliver an ultimatum that he step down or face military action.
The leaders of Benin, Cape Verde and Sierra Leone come with a message from the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) that he must cede power or the group may use force to resolve Ivory Coast\’s political crisis.
There seems little chance of Gbagbo giving in, however, and he has warned that ECOWAS\’ threat of military action could plunge the region into war.
The visit comes the day after Gbagbo appeared to have seen off one challenge when a general strike call was slow to take effect, but suffered a setback when his Paris embassy fell to supporters of rival Alassane Ouattara.
Both Gbagbo and his long-time rival Ouattara claim to have won last month\’s presidential election, but Ouattara has been recognised as the president by UN vote monitors and world powers. Related article: Ouattara supporters \’take over Paris\’ I.Coast embassy\’
Ouattara, who is besieged in his headquarters hotel and protected by UN peacekeepers, had urged workers to down tools across the country Monday.
At first, the sprawling commercial capital Abidjan, one of West Africa\’s biggest ports and the key to controlling the country, was as busy as ever, its streets snarled with traffic jams and its markets packed with shoppers.
But later in the day, when word of the strike call began to spread, there was disruption to public transport — forcing hundreds to walk home — and there were signs of makeshift barricades springing up in some districts.
Ouattara had more clear-cut success outside the country, however.
His supporters occupied the Ivorian embassy in Paris, after the former colonial power said it would recognise Ouattara\’s choice for ambassador. The previous pro-Gbagbo ambassador had left the premises without resistance.
In another blow to Gbagbo, the African Union named Kenya\’s Prime Minister Raila Odinga as its pointman for efforts to resolve the crisis in Ivory Coast.
Odinga has been hawkish on the crisis, and was the first African leader to call for military action against Gbagbo.
The African Union has also called on Gbagbo to go, leaving him almost totally isolated, with only Angola publicly backing its ally. On Sunday, Washington kept up pressure, renewing its support for ECOWAS.
Gbagbo\’s forces remain firmly in charge in Abidjan, where they have been accused of carrying out scores of killings in pro-Ouattara areas.
Ouattara\’s shadow government is under siege in an Abidjan resort, protected by 800 UN peacekeepers, but unable to move beyond the grounds of the Golf Hotel or take charge of the levers of state power.
Some 14,000 Ivorians have already fled to neighbouring Liberia amid the post-election violence, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees said Saturday.