, ABUJA, Dec 25 – West African nations were on Saturday preparing to send a high-level delegation to Ivory Coast after threatening force if Laurent Gbagbo refused to quit power.
Leaders from the 15-member ECOWAS regional bloc also warned Friday in a statement after their summit that those responsible for post-election deaths would face international prosecution.
Gbagbo\’s internationally recognised rival in last month\’s presidential vote, Alassane Ouattara, meanwhile urged the army to desert the incumbent leader.
The ECOWAS delegation was a final bid to get Gbagbo to leave peacefully, said leaders of the Economic Community of West African States after an emergency summit in Abuja, Nigeria.
The leaders "expressed concern over the fast deteriorating political and security environment … characterised by escalating violence, the use of mercenaries to perpetrate atrocities … (and) the heightening ethnic tensions, as well the threat of a civil war."
If Gbagbo refused to heed ECOWAS calls to step down, "the community will be left with no alternative but to take other measures, including the use of legitimate force, to achieve the goals of the Ivorian people," the statement added.
The bloc said it planned a meeting of military chiefs of staff from the organisation to plan future action.
Leaders also expressed "deep concern" over the deaths in Ivory Coast in recent weeks and warned "all those responsible that they will face international trials for human rights violations at the earliest opportunity."
At an emergency summit earlier this month, ECOWAS had already suspended Ivory Coast from the organisation and called on Gbagbo to step down.
Pressure on Gbagbo has mounted since last month\’s vote, with the United States searching for more UN troops and France offering the incumbent president a final chance to step aside.
This latest summit was held after a UN body demanded a halt to "atrocities" in Ivory Coast and the Central Bank of West African States blocked Gbagbo\’s access to finances following the World Bank\’s earlier move to freeze loans.
That financial measure may make it difficult for Gbagbo to pay salaries for soldiers and others.
Gbagbo\’s government spokesman Ahoua Don Mello branded the decision "illegal and manifestly outside the competence of the West African Monetary Union."
Gbagbo himself has refused to budge in the face of escalating calls for him to leave, despite the fact that much of the world, including the United Nations, has recognised Ouattara as the winner of last month\’s elections.
With Gbagbo unable to access the money to pay the troops, Ouattara made a direct appeal to the military Friday, reading a statement from the Golf Hotel, the luxury Abidjan resort where his shadow government is holed up.
He and his colleagues are protected by 800 UN peacekeepers who are in turn blockaded by Gbagbo\’s security forces.
"As commander in chief, I order the Defence and Security Forces to carry out their republican mission of protecting the population against the militias and foreign mercenaries who are spilling Ivorian blood," he said.
Both Ouattara\’s camp and UN human rights monitors accuse Gbagbo\’s FDS of involvement in large-scale human rights abuses. There have also been reports of them working with masked militia fighters and Liberian mercenaries.
"Violence is returning to our towns and our city neighbourhoods. Serious human rights violations are reported from all corners," Ouattara said.
"Under cover of the curfew, people have been been kidnapped and executed by elements of the Republican Guard and the Cecos, backed by foreign mercenaries and militiamen," he said, in his first public statement this month.
While commanders of the entire 17,000-strong FDS have pledged loyalty to Gbagbo, his most feared support comes from two elite squads, the 1,500-strong Guards and the 2,000 members of the Cecos police special forces unit.
Ahead of Friday\’s summit, the United States had said it was talking with regional countries from ECOWAS about boosting the 9,000-strong UN mission in Ivory Coast.
In New York Friday, Gbagbo\’s diplomatic isolation was reinforced as the United Nations accepted the credentials of an Ouattara aide as Ivory Coast\’s envoy there.
French Foreign Minister Michele Alliot-Marie said Friday that Gbagbo could still step down honourably, but warned that time was growing short.
"Mr Gbagbo still has the possibility of leaving this situation with dignity by recognising what the results are and by handing over power," she told French radio.
Howard Berman, chairman of the US House of Representatives\’ Committee on Foreign Affairs, denounced Gbagbo\’s "political thuggery" and called for him to go.
"President Gbagbo personifies the kind of dictator that has crippled many African countries over several decades," he said.