, ABIDJAN, Dec 6 – Rivals challenging Laurent Gbagbo\’s claim to the Ivory Coast presidency declared they had formed a new government Sunday, as international mediators tried to settle the standoff amid fears of civil war.
South Africa\’s former president Thabo Mbeki stepped in to try to head off violence after both the incumbent Gbagbo and his old rival Alassane Ouattara swore themselves in as president.
But after Mbeki, sent by the 53-member African Union (AU), held emergency talks with the two, Ouattara upped the ante.
He called on the mediator to demand Gbagbo quit, as his own allies declared they had formed a new government.
Hundreds of people fearing violence meanwhile began crossing west from parts of Ivory Coast controlled by Ouattara\’s supporters into neighbouring Liberia, an official there said.
Despite an order by Gbagbo for Ivory Coast\’s borders to be sealed, "there are more than 300 Ivorians who have already crossed the borders into Liberia", the top Liberian official for refugees, Saah Nyumah, told AFP.
Nyumah warned of impending food shortages if the numbers increase. "They are mostly women, children and elderly people."
Later Sunday, the army announced they would be reopening the borders at 6:00 am (0600 GMT) Monday, but that security would be reinforced.
Mbeki met with the two rivals in Abidjan, the country\’s main city.
Ouattara told reporters after talks with Mbeki: "I asked him to ask Laurent Gbagbo not to hang onto power… to quit power, as you should when you lose an election."
The political crisis "is obviously very serious", Mbeki told reporters.
"Among other things, it\’s important not to have violence, not to return to war and so on, to find a peaceful solution."
Ivory Coast was split in two between north and south by a civil war in 2002 and 2003. The November 28 runoff vote was supposed to stabilise the country, which was once the most prosperous in west Africa.
The streets of Abidjan were quiet Sunday, but at least 17 people have been killed since last week.
The AU warned in a statement Saturday the crisis could erupt into "a crisis of incalculable consequences".
They called on Gbagbo to recognise the findings of the Independent Electoral Commission which found that Ouattara had won the presidential election.
But Gbagbo, 65, has defied international calls to cede power since the United Nations led the way in recognising Ouattara as the winner.
And as Gbagbo\’s allies hung the chain of office around his neck at a ceremony on Saturday, ex-prime minister Ouattara, 68, swore himself in as president in a handwritten letter to the constitutional authorities.
UN-certified results from the run-off vote showed Ouattara as the winner, but Gbagbo\’s high court allies overturned them by annulling allegedly rigged ballots in parts of the north, his rival\’s stronghold.
The United States and European Union have also recognised Ouattara as the victor, but Gbagbo has refused to step aside and told outsiders to mind their own business.
"I am charged with defending our sovereignty and I will not negotiate on that," he said on Saturday after being sworn in.
A spokesman for former rebel leader and incumbent prime minister Guillaume Soro, who has pledged allegiance to Ouattara, on Sunday read out to reporters a list of 13 Ouattara allies named in a new government.
At the top of the list was Soro as prime minister and defence minister. Soro is the leader of the former rebel New Forces movement that controls the north.
State television on Friday meanwhile broadcast pictures of military leaders apparently pledging allegiance to Gbagbo.
Soldiers were deployed around Abidjan, while armoured vehicles from a UN peacekeeping force guarded the hotel housing Ouattara\’s campaign base.
Mbeki has previously helped mediate a peace deal which paved the way for Ivory Coast\’s first elections in a decade last month.
He also mediated in Zimbabwe\’s 2008 election crisis, helping to form a national unity government there, but was widely criticised for not publicly confronting President Robert Mugabe as he clung violently to power.