ABIDJAN African leaders ended meetings in Ivory Coast Monday without persuading Laurent Gbagbo to cede power to his rival Alassane Ouattara, but the talks will go on, one of the envoys said.
Gbagbo, in power since 2000, has so far refused to concede that he lost the November 28 election to Ouattara, despite widespread international condemnation and the threat of force to oust him after U.N.-certified results showed Ouattara won.
Four leaders representing the West African regional bloc ECOWAS and the African Union (AU) met Gbagbo for several hours in the afternoon before meeting Ouattara in the lagoon-side hotel where he is holed up, guarded by U.N. peacekeepers.
It was the second visit by three west African heads of state -- Benin's Boni Yayi, Sierra Leone's Ernest Bai Koroma and Cape Verde's Pedro Pires -- who met Gbagbo last week. Kenyan Prime Minister Raila Odinga joined them Monday on the AU's behalf.
"We have had very, very important meetings ... At this stage we can only say the discussions are ongoing," Koroma said after the meetings ended.
"When discussions are ongoing, you don't expect anything to be concluded (yet)," he added as the group headed for the airport. No other details emerged from the talks.
ECOWAS has said it could use "legitimate force" if Gbagbo refuses to go quietly. Ouattara's rival government has said this is Gbagbo's last chance to leave peacefully and with immunity.
Asked if the mission would repeat an ultimatum for Gbagbo to leave or face force, ECOWAS Ivory Coast representative Doukoure Abram said earlier: "No, there will be discussions going on."
Odinga's office said the Kenyan prime minister would "seek a peaceful settlement to the election crisis (...) and seek an assurance of safety and security for Mr. Laurent Gbagbo and his supporters, if he agrees to cede power."
More than 170 people have been killed since the disputed election. The crisis threatens to restart fighting in a country still divided by a 2002-03 civil war.
Washington has said it endorses the ECOWAS initiatives and hopes Gbagbo will go soon. A senior U.S. official said there seemed to be little hope of a quick resolution.
"This is likely to take some time to resolve itself," the official said. "If President Gbagbo is looking for a dignified exit, we remain open to help him with that. But there's no indication that he's prepared to leave at this point.... Every indication we have at this point is that he is digging in."
Gbagbo, who has the backing of the country's top court and the army, has shrugged off pressure to step down and said on state television over the weekend that Ouattara "should not count on foreign armies to come and make him president."
A Gbagbo spokesman said Gbagbo would not agree to leave.
Nearly all African leaders have backed Ouattara. But Angola, the only African nation to send an ambassador to Gbagbo's swearing in, accused foreign nations of "inciting other countries in the region to start a war."
The United States and the European Union have imposed a travel ban on Gbagbo and his inner circle, while the World Bank and the regional West African central bank have frozen his finances in an attempt to weaken his grip on power.
Ivory Coast missed a nearly $30 million interest payment on its $2.3 billion Eurobond due Friday, the London Club of commercial creditors said Monday. The country is not yet in default because of a 30-day grace period.
The crisis has not yet hurt Ivory Coast's main export, the world's largest cocoa crop. Exporters said Monday deliveries were roughly the same as last year's, though more violence could prove disruptive.
West African leaders are seen as unlikely to carry out the threat to use force because of the risk of being bogged down in an urban war and the potential reprisals on millions of people from Ghana, Nigeria and Burkina Faso living in the Ivory Coast.
Nigeria, which has the region's biggest army, has its own growing security problems and its own elections in April.
The U.N. has said Gbagbo may be criminally responsible for human rights violations, including killings and kidnappings by security forces since the election.
"This is the last chance for Mr. Gbagbo to get a peaceful departure from power and a guarantee of immunity," Ouattara's prime minister, Guillaume Soro, said at the weekend.
(Additional reporting by Carolyn Cohn in London and Christian Tsoumou in Brazzaville; Writing by David Lewis and Richard Valdmanis; editing by Tim Pearce)