African nations have promised Ivory Coast President Laurent Gbagbo a "soft landing" in exile, a senior U.S. official said on Friday as pressure grew on him to concede last month's disputed election.
The West African state has been in turmoil since the Nov. 28 vote in which Gbagbo claimed victory with backing from the nation's top legal body, rejecting as fraudulent results showing he lost by a 10 percent margin to rival Alassane Ouattara.
Rebels loyal to Ouattara exchanged fire with the army in Abidjan and elsewhere on Thursday while protests in Abidjan left at least 20 dead, raising worries of a return to all-out conflict in a country still split after a 2002-03 civil war.
"There is at least one African offer of a soft landing, but it is up to him to take it," William Fitzgerald, the State Department official in charge of West African affairs, told Reuters in an interview.
He added that the United States was ready to impose travel sanctions on Gbagbo, his inner circle and their families within days if the country's political crisis remains unresolved, echoing threats made by France.
European Union leaders on Friday also called on Ivory Coast's army to defect from Gbagbo to Ouattara, while Kenyan Prime Minister Raila Odinga went further with a direct call for African nations to oust Gbagbo by force if necessary.
"Mr Gbagbo must be forced even if it means using military means to get rid of him because now he is just relying on military power, not the people's power, to intimidate the people," Odinga told a news conference in Nairobi.
"The African Union should develop teeth."
The Ivorian military is seen as divided, but Gbagbo's heavily armed presidential guard, whose exact numbers are not known, are diehard loyalists.
Toussaint Alain, spokesman for the Laurent Gbagbo government, dismissed the critics. "It is not up to a foreign president to give orders to President Gbagbo," he said.
A Gbagbo spokesman said 20 were killed in the Abidjan protests, including 10 security forces. A Ouattara spokesman put the tool at 14 protesters killed.
A call for renewed protests by Ouattara allies went unheeded on Friday for fear of another crackdown.
"It seems (...) that something is moving forward, that maybe it is better to wait it out than be killed on the streets," said Patrick Achi, a Ouattara spokesman. "It is too much bloodshed."
Gbagbo has shown little sign of buckling under the growing international pressure and has accused foreign powers of meddling in Ivorian politics.
U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon told reporters in New York on Friday that Gbagbo's attempts to hold onto power "cannot be allowed to stand".
"Gbagbo going nowhere"
Ivory Coast President Laurent Gbagbo has no intention of stepping down following last month's disputed election, his spokesman said on Friday.
A senior U.S. official said African nations had promised Gbagbo a "soft landing" in exile, as he faces growing international pressure to step aside.
The West African state has been in turmoil since the Nov. 28 vote, in which Gbagbo claimed victory with backing from the nation's top legal body.
The Constitutional Council annulled hundreds of thousands of votes in pro-Ouattara areas and rejected the U.N.-certified provisional result, which gave Alassane Ouattara victory by a 10 percent margin.
"President Gbagbo is going nowhere. He was elected for five years and he will only leave power in 2015," spokesman Alain Toussaint told Reuters in London.
Toussaint condemned a European Union call for the army to defect and support Ouattara.
"The Ivory Coast army is republican, it is loyal to the institutions of the republic. The European Union call is totally irresponsible and scandalous," Toussaint said.
"That means that the European Union is calling for civil war in Ivory Coast."
France is Ivory Coast's former colonial power, and President Nicolas Sarkozy has urged Gbagbo to go or face sanctions.
Toussaint said the two men had not been in contact in recent days: "I think President Gbagbo and Sarkozy have nothing to say to one another because this is an internal affair."
He accused France and its Western allies of trying to install their own man:
"France, the United States, the EU want to carry out a plot, a constitutional coup d'etat, and we say 'No' ... we can't allow foreign governments to interfere in our affairs."
ReutersLast Mod: 18 Aralık 2010, 15:01