, WASHINGTON, Dec 7 – President Barack Obama urged Ivory Coast\’s incumbent leader Laurent Gbagbo to cede power to the "legitimate winner" of the polls, a senior US official said on Monday amid growing unrest in the country.
At least 20 people have been killed in election-related violence amid a tense deadlock between powerful rivals Gbagbo and his rival Alassane Ouattara, a former prime minister.
Both have sworn themselves in as president of the west African state and each has named a separate prime minister.
"To the White House, Ouattara is the legitimate winner of the election," a senior White House official told AFP in an exclusive interview.
Gbagbo, 65, has defied international calls to end his 10 years in power after the United Nations recognized Ouattara as the winner of a presidential vote which was supposed to ensure peace but instead has been marred by deadly violence.
In a letter to Gbagbo late last week, Obama put forward an offer to choose between two options that remain valid even though the strongman was sworn in on Saturday.
"You can abide by the results of this election and step aside and respect the results of the election," the official elaborated, speaking on condition of anonymity.
"However, if you go forward down the path that you\’re signalling that you\’re going down, you will face greater international isolation, that you will be ignoring the will of your own people and that you will bear the consequences of what is an unjust action."
Obama was adding to growing world pressure on the two men.
"We think it\’s important… that we do begin to discuss accountability measures such as targeted sanctions so that we\’re sending a firm message about the consequences of subverting the democratic process," said the official.
Another senior White House official said the United States was speaking "with a range of partners about the crisis… about both immediate next steps going forward," including France, key regional players and countries bordering Ivory Coast.
He said Washington was discussing "what\’s appropriate in terms of holding those responsible for subverting the democratic process accountable for their actions… And also making clear that anyone who instigates violence will also be held accountable for their actions."
The United Nations said it was pulling hundreds of staff out of the country due to the volatile situation, as South African ex-president Thabo Mbeki ended an urgent mediation mission without any major announcement after talks with the rivals.
UN Secretary -General Ban Ki-moon "remains deeply concerned" and "has been in close contact with many world leaders," spokesman Farhan Haq said.
The European Union meanwhile threatened sanctions if the crisis is not resolved quickly.
Ouattara supporters took to the streets in the main city Abidjan and the ex-rebel chief named as prime minister in his rival government, Guillaume Soro, warned Gbagbo he could face an armed revolt if he does not back down.
A civil war split the world\’s biggest cocoa producer between north and south in 2002 and 2003. The election was supposed to end a decade of conflict in the country, once the most prosperous in west Africa.