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Ivory Coast's Ouattara pressed to seek third term after PM's death, sources say

ABIDJAN (Reuters) - Leaders from Ivory Coast’s ruling party agreed at a closed-door meeting late Wednesday to press President Alassane Ouattara to seek a third term in October’s election following the sudden death of Prime Minister Amadou Gon Coulibaly, two sources said.

Ivory Coast President Alassane Ouattara (R) andPrime Minister Amadou Gon Coulibaly pose for pictures in the Presidential Palace in Abidjan, Ivory Coast January 10, 2017. REUTERS/Thierry Gouegnon/File Photo

Ouattara announced in March that he would not stand for re-election after 10 years in office and designated Gon Coulibaly, his closest political ally, as the RHDP party’s candidate.

Gon Coulibaly’s death on Wednesday, less than a week after he returned to Ivory Coast from an extended medical leave in France for heart issues, left the RHDP scrambling to choose a replacement.

The election is expected to be the most hotly contested since 2010, when Ouattara’s victory over incumbent Laurent Gbagbo sparked a brief civil war in which 3,000 people died.

A small group of senior RHDP leaders, presided over by the party’s executive secretary, Adama Bictogo, met informally on Wednesday, said the two sources, both party members, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

“We think unanimously that only President Ouattara can carry the flag. He alone can unite us,” said one of the sources. “It is true that he said he did not want to be a candidate, but the situation has changed.”

A more formal leadership meeting is planned for Thursday, the sources said. The deadline to submit the candidate’s name is July 31.

The presidency declined to comment on Thursday.

Ouattara has previously said he would prefer to hand over power to a new generation but that he has the right to run again under a new constitution adopted in 2016. His opponents dispute that.

“He has always been a unanimous choice within his own camp. But (running again) would be extremely dangerous, particularly vis-a-vis the opposition, which would find a common enemy,” said Rinaldo Depagne, International Crisis Group’s West Africa project director.

The RHDP candidate will face off against former President Henri Konan Bedie, who declared his candidacy last month, while other politicians could join the race ahead of the filing deadline.

Additional reporting and writing by Aaron Ross in Dakar; Editing by Bate Felix and Frances Kerry