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Gbagbo to skip African Union mediation

ABIDJAN, Mar 8 – Ivory Coast strongman Laurent Gbagbo will not attend an African Union meeting Thursday to settle a dispute over the presidency but will be represented by the leader of his party, a party official said.

Pascal Affi N\’Guessan, leader of the Ivorian Popular Front (FPI), "has left Abidjan accompanied by (Foreign Minister) Alcide Djedje," headed for Addis Ababa, public relations official Eric Ane told AFP on Tuesday.

Gbagbo wanted to stay in the west African country "because of the deterioration of the domestic security situation", Ane said.

Gbagbo and his rival Alassane Ouattara, internationally recognised as head of state after a contested presidential poll in November, have been invited on Thursday to a meeting with a panel of heads of state appointed by the AU to resolve the Ivorian crisis. The AU Peace and Security Council will also be represented.

Holed up in Abidjan\’s Golf Hotel under a blockade by forces loyal to Gbagbo, who has ruled since 2000, Ouattara has accepted the invitation. He is protected by troops of a United Nations mission in Ivory Coast and by former rebels of the New Forces, who control the northern half of the country.

Close to Gbagbo and also invited to the Ethiopian capital, Paul Yao N\’Dre, the head of the Constitutional Council, was not seen at the airport with Affi and Djedje. It was not immediately possible to confirm if he was making the trip.

The five African leaders on the AU panel were due to meet in Addis Ababa on Wednesday "to finalise the positions they will present to the Peace and Security Council on Thursday, an AU official said.

The panel is expected to announce binding decisions by the end of the month, against a background of rising post-electoral violence in Abidjan and the west of Ivory Coast.

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