, ABUJA, Jan 4 – Ivory Coast\’s political rivals Laurent Gbagbo and Alassane Ouattara have agreed to meet in an apparent breakthrough in efforts to end the country\’s political crisis, the African Union\’s envoy said on Tuesday.
As Washington offered refuge to embattled strongman Gbagbo, Raila Odinga – who met the rivals in Ivory Coast on Monday – announced the breakthrough on his return to Nigeria for talks with other African leaders.
"We have broken the ice. They (Gbagbo and Ouattara) have agreed to meet face to face but under certain conditions," Odinga, Kenya\’s prime minister, told AFP by telephone.
However Ouattara\’s camp quickly ruled out any direct talks with Gbagbo, with aide Ali Coulibaly saying the assertion was "completely false."
Odinga spoke shortly before African mediators met to debrief Goodluck Jonathan, Nigeria\’s president and current leader of regional bloc ECOWAS, on their mission to the Ivory Coast the day before.
"We had useful discussions with the parties in Ivory Coast. It was a useful beginning. More efforts have to be made to achieve peace in Ivory Coast," Odinga said.
The Kenyan said a statement would be issued later Tuesday "on the outcome of our mission and the way forward."
Four African leaders shuttled between Gbagbo and the internationally recognised new leader of the cocoa-rich country, Ouattara, in a new round of talks in the capital Abidjan on Monday.
They left Abidjan late Monday with the Sierra Leone leader Ernest Koroma giving a veiled admission that no firm deal had been secured from Gbagbo for him to stand down.
"At this stage we can only say that discussions are ongoing," Koroma told reporters after the four leaders met Gbagbo and Ouattara separately.
Ouattara, however, appeared to rule out further talks.
"For us, the discussions are over," he told journalists after meeting the three presidents representing the 15-nation Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and Odinga, representing the African Union.
Gbagbo faces the threat of military action by ECOWAS if he does not surrender power to Ouattara, who reiterated his demands for Gbagbo to step down.
"One, that he must recognise the results of the Independent Electoral Commission, two, that I am the elected president, Ivory Coast\’s legitimate president, three that he must leave office as quickly as possible," he said.
With the clock ticking, a senior US State Department official said that Gbagbo, who has relatives in Atlanta, Georgia, could seek refuge there, but that the offer would not last long.
"We want to see him leave. If he wishes to come here, we of course would entertain that as a means of resolving the current situation," the official said, requesting anonymity.
Ivory Coast\’s Independent Electoral Commission as well as the UN declared Ouattara the winner, while the Constitutional Council said that Gbagbo won.
Both men have been sworn in as president and Gbagbo claims there is an international plot to depose him after more than a decade in power.
Jonathan has said that ECOWAS will decide by Tuesday how to handle the impasse, amid unconfirmed reports of mass graves filled with Ouattara supporters since November\’s vote.
Gbagbo, who retains control of the army, rejected the ECOWAS attempt last week to persuade him to step down and end the crisis that has sparked international condemnation and fears of a civil war.
In his New Year\’s address Gbagbo said calls for him to quit amounted to "an attempted coup d\’etat carried out under the banner of the international community".
West African regional military chiefs met in Abuja last week and set in motion plans to oust Gbagbo if negotiations fail, according to a Nigerian defence spokesman.
A follow-up meeting to fine-tune the "last-resort" plan is scheduled for Mali on January 17 and 18.
Tensions have risen steadily since Gbagbo and Ouattara both claimed victory in the presidential run-off vote that it was hoped would end a decade of crisis but has instead sent thousands fleeing the west African nation.
The UN says that at least 179 people have been killed in post-election violence but that it has been unable to fully investigate because of attacks on its personnel, while UN rapporteurs said they feared the violations being committed amounted to "crimes against humanity".