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Ivory Coast's Gbagbo is not president, ECOWAS says

ADDIS ABABA (Reuters) - Recognising Ivory Coast’s Laurent Gbagbo as president is out of the question for African leaders trying to resolve the country’s post-election crisis, the West African regional bloc ECOWAS said on Sunday.

Ivory Coast President Laurent Gbagbo meets Kenya's Prime Minister Raila Odinga (not in picture) to discuss the post-electoral situation at the presidential palace in Abidjan January 17, 2011. REUTERS/Thierry Gouegnon

Its statement was the strongest sign yet that Gbagbo had failed to convert African unease over possible military intervention into a reversal of U.N.-certified results showing rival Alassane Ouattara won a Nov. 28 presidential poll.

“The decision that they took was to try once more a peaceful effort to remove Gbagbo, not to legitimise Gbagbo. That is out of the question,” James Victor Gbeho, president of the ECOWAS Commission, told journalists.

He was speaking on the sidelines of an African Union (AU) summit in the Ethiopian capital.

On Friday, the AU’s Peace and Security Council appointed five African leaders to end the crisis and gave them a one-month mandate. West African bloc ECOWAS had previously threatened to use force to oust Gbagbo if other measures fail.

Ouattara has been recognised as president-elect by most world leaders but he is confined to a U.N.-protected hotel while Gbagbo retains control of the armed forces and most institutions despite mounting pressure and international sanctions.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon renewed a call on Gbagbo to leave power on Sunday, while his representative to Ivory Coast said peacekeepers there had superior firepower and “could always fire back” if Gbagbo’s forces attacked.

“It is important for Gbagbo to fully respect the will of Ivorians. The longer it lasts the more serious will be the problems for the people,” Ban told a news conference in Addis Ababa on the sidelines of the AU summit.

The U.N.’s top representative to Ivory Coast, Y.J. Choi, also said the thousands of peacekeepers in the country were prepared to fight back if needed.

“Although our mission is to protect, we have superior equipment and we can always fire back,” he said.

“But what we are facing is a very peculiar situation. We can fire back but it’s difficult when you have civilians lying on the ground. We are very careful not to be drawn into their game.”

In the run-up to the summit, divisions had emerged among African leaders over the stalemate, with Gbagbo hoping to secure support for a vote recount.

Some African leaders were opposed to a threat by ECOWAS to remove Gbagbo by force if he refuses to hand over power. He was named winner by a legal body which cancelled hundreds of thousands of Ouattara votes, alleging fraud.

Gbeho said there were no differences between ECOWAS and the AU’s peace and security body and an attempt to authorise the AU to re-assess the results had been rejected.

A member of Gbagbo’s government and head of the pro-Gbagbo Young Patriots youth movement, Charles Ble Goude, accused the United Nations of bias and of influencing the AU’s decision to reject a recount.

“Ban Ki-Moon and his buddies have up until now have served the singular goal of placing their friend Alassance Ouattara at the head of Ivory Coast,” he said in a press release, adding it was now up to Ivorians to bring peace to the country.

Ble Goude previously had threatened to organise a march on the Golf Hotel, where Ouattara has set up his headquarters under the protection of UN peacekeepers.

So far more than 260 people have been killed since the crisis began and tens of thousands have fled to neighbouring Liberia. Cocoa prices have soared and Ivory Coast is set to miss the extended deadline for paying a coupon on its $2.3 billion Eurobond due 2032 .

Reporting by Richard Lough and David Clarke; writing by David Lewis and Richard Valdmanis; Editing by Michael Roddy