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AU chief meets Ivory Coast presidential rivals

ABIDJAN, Jan 26 – The African Union chief held talks on Tuesday with both rivals claiming to be Ivory Coast\’s president as regional envoys headed to the United States, intensifying diplomatic efforts to end the dispute.

Malawian President Bingu wa Mutharika said after a meeting with Laurent Gbagbo, who has refused to step down as president following November 28 polls, that he would pass Gbagbo\’s proposals to African leaders.

"My brother and my friend has briefed me in detail of what happened and also he has briefed me in detail of his ideas," Mutharika said before leaving the west African country after talks with both Gbagbo and rival Alassane Ouattara.

"I will take his proposals and his views back to African Union, to his brothers the heads of state and governments of the African Union, so that together… we can find the way forward," he added, as Gbagbo stood at his side.

Earlier this month he urged Gbagbo to step down to "avoid a bloodbath."

The head of the 53-nation African Union also met Alassane Ouattara, internationally recognised as having won the election but confined to his hotel camp for weeks by soldiers loyal to Gbagbo.

"My responsibility is to listen to the two, to hear their opinion on how we can move forward," he told reporters before flying out from Blantyre as the latest in a string of envoys to attempt to resolve the standoff.

"Even if these people (other envoys) have already come, that does not mean that I cannot do the same to help," he said.

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The 53-member AU is to discuss ways to resolve Ivory Coast\’s weeks-long leadership crisis during a summit Sunday and Monday in Addis Ababa.

A delegation from West African bloc ECOWAS meanwhile headed to the United States where they wanted to meet President Barack Obama and UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon over the crisis, the Nigerian foreign minister said.

The Economic Community of West African States, currently headed by Nigeria, has threatened military intervention amid concerns the dragging dispute will ignite civil conflict and cause a humanitarian crisis.

"True," Nigerian Foreign Minister Odein Ajumogobia said, confirming media reports on the planned meetings in the United States but declining to give details.

Ajumogobia on Monday called on the UN Security Council to authorise force in Ivory Coast.

The 15-nation ECOWAS "requires unequivocal international support through an appropriate United Nations Security Council resolution to sanction the use of force," he said.

Sierra Leone President Ernest Koroma lead the team to Washington, according to Nigerian media. ECOWAS commission president James Victor Gbeho was also part of the mission, the reports said.

White House spokesman Tommy Vietor said the delegation was scheduled to hold talks with Obama\’s national security adviser, Thomas Donilon.

Ouattara\’s position was meanwhile reinforced by a definitive report from European Union observers stating that his claim to be president was "credible".

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"A recount is not in the least necessary," said Romanian MEP Christian Preda, who presented the report on behalf of some 120 observers from across the 27-state EU bloc, plus Norway and Switzerland.

Ouattara was declared winner by the Independent Electoral Commission by about 400,000 votes but a constitutional council overturned the decision and handed victory to Gbagbo.

This means there was "not the slightest problem" in proclaiming the winner, Preda said.

The elections in November had been postponed six times by Gbagbo, whose mandate ended in 2005, and were intended to unite the country split into government- and rebel-held areas by a 2002 civil war.

Post-election violence has already left 260 people dead while about 29,000 have fled into neighbouring Liberia, according to the United Nations.

The refugees had overwhelmed 23 villages along the border with Ivory Coast, Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf said.

"Our citizens have been sharing their rice and other produce recently harvested, but they are now overwhelmed, and camps are being built to hold the many thousands of our Ivorian brothers and sisters," she said.

In a bid to financially strangle Gbagbo, Ouattara on Tuesday ordered a one-month halt to cocoa and coffee exports, immediately sending world prices of cocoa soaring.

Ivory Coast is the world\’s largest producer and exporter of cocoa, and the 12th of coffee.

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