, ABIDJAN, Dec 8 – Pressure on Ivory Coast\’s incumbent leader Laurent Gbagbo to cede power to his electoral rival mounted on Tuesday with the west African nation\’s neighbours and the United States urging a "peaceful transition".
At the same time UN staff began evacuating from Ivory Coast, split in half in 2002 and 2003 by a civil war, for fear that the standoff following the November 28 presidential run-off vote could turn into violent conflict.
The regional bloc ECOWAS Tuesday suspended Ivory Coast over the crisis and called on Gbagbo to yield power as it recognised opposition leader Alassane Ouattara as the new president.
"For now, we have suspended Cote d\’Ivoire from all our activities," Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan said following an emergency ECOWAS summit in Abuja.
"We believe that the result declared by the electoral commission … is the authentic one, and that (Alassane) Ouattara is the person who we support as the president of Cote d\’Ivoire."
The United States also piled pressure on Gbagbo with US State Department spokesman Philip Crowley saying "it is time for President Gbagbo to recognize the will of the people of Cote d\’Ivoire and embark on a peaceful transition."
Otherwise, he warned the country faces "isolation from the global community."
Meanwhile Gbagbo raised the stakes in the crisis, with his allies announcing a new government to rival the one declared by Ouattara.
International mediators are trying to break the deadlock amid warnings that it could erupt into violent unrest in the world\’s top cocoa producing country.
At the same time non-essential staff for the UN mission "have begun leaving the country," a UN official in Abidjan told AFP, without giving further details.
The United Nations in New York put at 460 the number of staff it planned to relocate from Ivory Coast.
Liberian officials have also said hundreds of people fearing violence have crossed from western Ivory Coast into Liberia.
US President Barack Obama also wrote to Gbagbo, in office since 2000, urging him to cede power to Ouattara, a US official said in Washington, adding that the United States, like the European Union, would consider sanctions on Gbagbo if he clings on.
Gbagbo and Ouattara have both sworn themselves in as president and each has named its own government, leaving Ivorians anxious for how the standoff will be resolved.
The streets of Ivory Coast\’s main city Abidjan filled up with traffic and pedestrians after several days of tense quiet, but residents remained anxious on Tuesday.
"People are worried," said Marcel, 37, a resident of the Abobo district who asked not to be identified by his family name, complaining that he has little independent news since Gbagbo cut off foreign news broadcasts to the country.
"They are wondering what will happen because if the dialogue runs out that could lead to the use of force by both sides."
International mediators have urged a peaceful end to the crisis which observers say risks dragging the country, once west Africa\’s most prosperous, back into major unrest.
South African ex-president Thabo Mbeki ended an urgent African Union mediation mission Monday with no major announcement.
In Abuja, Jonathan said ECOWAS (Economic Community of West African States) was not interested in a negotiated unity government in Ivory Coast because previous such arrangements in other nations have stumbled.
"From the experience we have had so far in Kenya and in Zimbabwe, it has never really worked and that\’s why we don\’t want to contemplate that," he said.
Ivory Coast\’s election was supposed to ensure peace but instead has been marred by deadly violence. Human rights group Amnesty International said at least 20 people have been shot dead since the vote on November 28.
Gbagbo has extended a nightly curfew to curb disturbances.
Obama wrote to Gbagbo late last week that he "can abide by the results of this election and step aside" or else "face greater international isolation," the official in Washington said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
If Gbagbo clings on, he added, "it\’s important… that we do begin to discuss accountability measures such as targeted sanctions."
Cocoa prices hit four-month highs on Tuesday, as fears grew for the stability of Ivory Coast.