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African leaders pursue Ivorian peace plan

ABIDJAN, Feb 23 – Ivory Coast\’s internationally recognised election winner Alassane Ouattara met African leaders Tuesday on a new mission to mediate rival claims for the presidency amid a surge in deadly clashes.

"Your mission is for us a last-chance mission because seven others have come before you," Ouattara told the four African presidents as the impasse dragged towards its fourth month amid rising tensions and fears of civil war.

The presidents, dispatched by the African Union as strongman Laurent Gbagbo defies pressure to step down after losing November 28 elections, presented Ouattara with proposals to end the dispute.

The South Africa government, whose leader Jacob Zuma is on the mediation team, said they centred on forming a power-sharing interim government to run the country until new polls are held.

At the meeting Ouattara accused Gbagbo\’s men of having "violently suppressed" demonstrations by his followers on Monday, saying 12 were killed, some of them by rocket-launchers, an AFP reporter said.

Newspapers reported that at least six people were killed in the clashes in Abidjan.

The latest mediation bid comes amid rising tensions in Abidjan after deadly clashes between the two camps since the weekend, with Ouattara\’s camp calling for a "revolution" like the uprisings in Tunisia and in Egypt.

About 10 troops loyal to Gbagbo were killed Tuesday in clashes with unidentified gunmen in the Abidjan working class district of Abobo — a Ouattara stronghold, a security source said.

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Four vehicles of the security forces were ambushed and "all the occupants were killed," the source told AFP. "There was heavy arms fighting and the army is being deployed to the sector," the source said.

Officials in Gbagbo\’s camp confirmed the report.

The mediators hoped for an outcome that "beyond the Ivory Coast is going to save peace in the sub-region, in all of Africa," said Mauritanian President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz, leader of the mission.

The mediation team, which also includes President Idriss Deby Itno of Chad and Jikaya Kikwete of Tanzania, met Gbagbo on Monday. The African Union wants them to find a binding solution to the standoff by February 28.

"They\’re trying to find some type of compromise solution whether they should share the presidency between the two presidents and whether they should continue with the interim government until they have new elections," South Africa\’s Deputy Foreign Minister Ebrahim Ebrahim said.

Ouattara\’s supporters heckled South Africa\’s president at the end of the meeting, calling him a "thief" and shouting "Zuma tell the truth". They claim he is an ally of Gbagbo.

An aide for Ouattara said he was unhappy with the absence in the delegation of President Blaise Compaore of Burkina Faso, who cancelled his visit after threats from Gbagbo loyalists accusing him of being an ally of Ouattara.

The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), which has adopted a tougher line than the African Union and threatened the use of force to oust Gbagbo, also slammed the mediation effort for going ahead without Compaore.

Witnesses said that for several hours Monday Abidjan\’s working-class neighbourhoods were urban warfare zones with clashes between supporters of Ouattara and the Gbagbo-allied Forces of Defence and Security.

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Gunfire rang through the streets and roads were barricaded with tables and burning tyres, they said.

Post-electoral violence has claimed at least 300 lives since mid-December, according to the United Nations.

Amnesty International accused forces loyal to both sides of abuses including rape and murder, saying the leadership dispute had created a "human rights black hole".

Also Tuesday Ouattara extended a ban on cocoa exports, a cornerstone of the economy, to March 15. He had ordered a one-month halt on January 24 in an attempt to choke off funding for Gbagbo.


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