ABIDJAN/WASHINGTON (Reuters) - African nations have promised Ivory Coast President Laurent Gbagbo a “soft landing” in exile, a senior U.S. official said on Friday as pressure grew on him to concede last month’s disputed election.
The West African state has been in turmoil since the November 28 vote in which Gbagbo claimed victory with backing from the nation’s top legal body, rejecting as fraudulent results showing he lost by a near 8 percent margin to rival Alassane Ouattara.
Rebels loyal to Ouattara exchanged fire with the army in Abidjan and elsewhere on Thursday while protests in Abidjan left at least 20 dead, raising worries of a return to all-out conflict in a country still split after a 2002-03 civil war.
“There is at least one African offer of a soft landing, but it is up to him to take it,” William Fitzgerald, the State Department official in charge of West African affairs, told Reuters in an interview.
He added that the United States was ready to impose travel sanctions on Gbagbo, his inner circle and their families within days if the crisis remains unresolved, echoing French threats.
European Union leaders on Friday also called on Ivory Coast’s army to defect from Gbagbo to Ouattara, while Kenyan Prime Minister Raila Odinga went further with a direct call for African nations to oust Gbagbo by force if necessary.
“Mr Gbagbo must be forced even if it means using military means to get rid of him because now he is just relying on military power, not the people’s power, to intimidate the people,” Odinga told a news conference in Nairobi.
“The African Union should develop teeth.”
The Ivorian military is seen as divided, but Gbagbo’s presidential guard, of unknown numbers, are diehard loyalists.
Alain Toussaint, a spokesman for Gbagbo, told Reuters in London: “The European Union call is totally irresponsible and scandalous.”
Cocoa exporters said most had shut down in the world’s top supplier since Thursday. Fear of a disruption to supplies has pushed futures prices close to four-month highs.
Ouattara supporters seeking to seize the state broadcaster RTI on Thursday clashed with security forces while pro-Ouattara rebels exchanged fire with government soldiers in Abidjan and in the town of Tiebissou on the rebel-government dividing line.
A Gbagbo spokesman said 20 were killed, 10 of them security forces. Ouattara’s camp spokesman said 14 protesters died.
A possible stumbling block to Gbagbo leaving is fear of prosecution facing him and loyalists for past violence, notably attacks by his supporters on Ivory Coast’s French community in 2004, and death squad killings of opposition activists.
The International Criminal Court in The Hague, whose prosecutor this week named six suspects accused of being behind post-election violence in Kenya, has warned all actors in Ivory Coast’s conflict that they will be prosecuted for any abuses.
Guillaume Soro, prime minister in Ouattara’s government, offered Gbagbo a process of reconciliation.
“If Laurent Gbagbo puts an end to the killing in the streets of Abidjan ... there will still be a chance for national reconciliation of the type seen in South Africa,” he told French news channel LCI on Friday.
“But if Laurent Gbagbo is going to keep killing civilians ... it will obviously be his duty to report to the International Criminal Court.”
A call for renewed protests by Ouattara allies went unheeded on Friday for fear of another crackdown.
“It seems (...) that something is moving forward, that maybe it is better to wait it out than be killed on the streets,” said Patrick Achi, a Ouattara spokesman. “It is too much bloodshed.”
Top African Union official Jean Ping held talks on the election dispute that has reopened the wounds of the civil war and prompted the United Nations to warn of a refugee crisis.
Gbagbo has shown little sign of buckling under pressure and has accused foreign powers of meddling in Ivorian politics.
“The danger is that the crisis degenerates into civil war. This would have serious consequences for the region where porous borders and an abundance of small arms means instability would be quickly exported to neighboring countries,” said Joseph Lake, an analyst at London-based Economist Intelligence Unit.
U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said on Friday in New York that Gbagbo trying to hold on “cannot be allowed to stand.”
The United Nations has about 10,000 soldiers and police in the country, and several hundred peacekeepers are deployed at the Golf Hotel where Ouattara has set up his headquarters.
Additional reporting by Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva, Emmanuel Jarry in Brussels, Nick Vinocur in Paris, Keith Weir in London; Writing by Richard Valdmanis and Mark John; Editing by Alison Williams