- Associated Press - Tuesday, December 28, 2010

ABIDJAN, Ivory Coast (AP) — West African presidents delivered a final ultimatum to incumbent Ivory Coast leader Laurent Gbagbo in person Tuesday after threatening a military ouster if he doesn’t accept an offer to go into exile in a neighboring country a month after a disputed runoff election.

The delegation was led by the presidents of Sierra Leone, Cape Verde and Benin, who refused to comment to reporters after a three-hour meeting with Mr. Gbagbo. He has been in power for a decade and so far has shown no interest in stepping aside despite international calls for him to go.

The delegation headed next to the hotel where Alassane Ouattara, the internationally recognized winner of the election, is based. While Mr. Ouattara has been endorsed by most of the world, Mr. Gbagbo still maintains control of Ivory Coast’s military and security forces.

The 15-nation regional bloc ECOWAS has threatened to use “legitimate force” if Mr. Gbagbo does not relinquish power. Nigeria has the strongest army in the region and is expected to play a major role if an operation is launched to oust Mr. Gbagbo.

Mr. Ouattara’s camp has been confident in recent days that such help is coming.

“It’s not a bluff,” one senior Ouattara adviser said Monday on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter. “The soldiers are coming much faster than anyone thinks.”

ECOWAS has intervened in past disputes, including the seizure of Sierra Leone’s capital in 1998, which forced military junta leaders to flee and allowed an elected president to return to power. ECOWAS also intervened in 1990 in Liberia, where its forces stayed for several years, and it has sent troops to Guinea-Bissau as well.

Some analysts feel an ECOWAS mission in Ivory Coast would entail a full-scale invasion, causing numerous civilian casualties.

Weeks of postelection violence have left at least 173 people dead, according to the United Nations, but the toll is believed to be much higher. The international body said it has been unable to investigate reports of a mass grave because of restrictions on U.N. personnel movements.

The French government said its forces in Ivory Coast will protect French citizens but won’t be making any decisions about an international military intervention.

Many Ivorians are terrified of Mr. Gbagbo’s security forces. Human rights groups blame security forces associated with Mr. Gbagbo for hundreds of arrests and dozens of cases of torture and disappearances since the election. A Gbagbo adviser has said he does not believe his supporters could be behind the violence.

Mr. Gbagbo has been in power since 2000 and had overstayed his mandate by five years when the long-delayed presidential election finally was held in October, with the runoff in November. The election was intended to help reunify a country that was divided by a 2002-03 civil war into a rebel-controlled north and a loyalist south.

The United Nations was tasked with certifying the results of the election as part of a peace agreement that ended the civil war.

While Ivory Coast officially was reunited in a 2007 peace deal, Mr. Ouattara still draws his support from the northern half of the country, where residents feel they are often treated as foreigners within their own country by southerners.

ECOWAS comprises Benin, Burkina Faso, Cape Verde, Ivory Coast, Gambia, Ghana, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Liberia, Mali, Niger, Nigeria, Senegal, Sierra Leone and Togo.

Associated Press writers Clarence Roy-Macaulay in Freetown, Sierra Leone, and Jonathan Paye-Layleh in Monrovia, Liberia, contributed to this report.

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