ADDIS ABABA (Reuters) - Five African leaders were tasked with resolving Ivory Coast’s crisis on Monday but a swift breakthrough looked unlikely as both rivals in a power struggle since a disputed election held their ground.
Presidents of South Africa, Tanzania, Mauritania, Burkina Faso and Chad will form a panel charged with solving a stand-off between incumbent Laurent Gbagbo and rival Alassane Ouattara within a month, an official for the African Union said at a summit.
Ahoua Don Mello, spokesman for Gbagbo’s government said the panel was an “excellent” idea that would force the AU to reverse its stance recognizing Ouattara as winner of the November 28 poll in the top cocoa grower in line with UN-certified results.
“Faced with the truth they will have to (change their position),” he added.
In a statement on Monday, Ouattara’s camp called on the commission to complete its work within the month to put an end to the suffering in the country and “block Laurent Gbagbo’s desire to provoke chaos in Ivory Coast.”
The statement highlighted African Union statements reconfirming Ouattara as the recognized leader.
“Diplomatically, it gives Gbagbo another month,” a diplomat who is following the process, told Reuters.
“The general view (in Ouattara’s camp) is that it simply doesn’t matter. They (the presidents) ... will be told by Gbagbo that he is not leaving,” added the diplomat of impressions based on contacts with both parties in the dispute.
Ouattara was named winner of the poll by United Nations-certified results from the election commission. But the results were reversed by a pro-Gbagbo legal body, which cited fraud in the pro-Ouattara north of the country.
Ouattara has since been recognized as president-elect by most world leaders but remains blocked in a hotel, protected by U.N. troops, while Gbagbo retains the loyalty of the armed forces and has rejected widespread calls to stand down.
Both men have formed their respective governments.
The AU said in a statement that the panel met for the first time on Monday, and agreed to send a team of experts on a preparatory mission to Ivory Coast.
“The Panel will, thereafter, travel to (Ivory Coast) to meet with the parties and submit to them proposals for a way out of the crisis,” the AU said in a statement that gave no timeframe, except confirming that the panel would complete its work within a month.
In the lead-up to an AU summit in Ethiopia, cracks had appeared in continental unity over the crisis but the leader of West African bloc ECOWAS said on Sunday that were would be no question of recognizing Gbagbo as winner.
Ivory Coast’s elections were meant to reunite the country, which has been divided since a 2002-3 war. Instead, it has deepened fault lines, with over 260 people killed and tens of thousands fleeing into Liberia, according to the U.N.
World cocoa prices have also surged on the instability while Ivory Coast looked at risk of defaulting on a $2.3 billion bond on Monday, the last possible day on which it can make a $29 million coupon payment to avoid default.
Additional reporting and writing by David Lewis; Editing by Ralph Boulton