WASHINGTON (Reuters) - African nations have promised embattled Ivory Coast President Laurent Gbagbo a “soft landing” in exile if he agrees to step down, but there is no indication yet he will accept the offer, a senior U.S. official said on Friday.
William Fitzgerald, the State Department official in charge of West African affairs, said the United States was ready to impose travel sanctions on Gbagbo, his inner circle and their families within days if Ivory Coast’s political crisis remains unresolved.
“There is at least one African offer of a soft landing, but it is up to him to take it,” Fitzgerald told Reuters in an interview.
“He’s been in power for a long long time and has enjoyed the fruits of that power ... He should walk off now before there are really large-scale clashes, and human rights charges and the abuse of power will come back to haunt him.”
Fitzgerald said the offer was likely being conveyed to Gbagbo by Jean Ping, a top African Union official who arrived in the country for talks on an election dispute that has reopened the wounds of a 2002-2003 civil war and prompted the United Nations to warn of a refugee crisis if violence escalates.
Rival supporters of Gbagbo, the incumbent, and rival presidential claimant Alassane Ouattara clashed on Thursday, killing at least 20 people, and Ouattara’s camp has called for further protests.
The United States, the United Nations, African states and others have recognized Ouattara as the victor of the November 28 polls, but Gbagbo has rejected the results, saying they were rigged by rebels who still hold the north after the civil war.
Fitzgerald said the United States was ready to match the European Union and impose travel sanctions on Gbagbo and his top advisers, including military leaders who have pledged loyalty to him.
This would have an immediate impact both on the leaders and their families, including their children who are attending schools in the United States, Fitzgerald said.
“They would leave,” he said, adding that this step would be formalized early next week if Gbagbo remained in power.
Fitzgerald said the United States continued to coordinate closely with France, Ivory Coast’s former colonial ruler, and African Union on next steps on Ivory Coast, and said suggestions that the AU could intervene militarily were not out of the question.
“We’re deeply concerned about the potential for large-scale clashes and a return to civil war and nobody wants to see that happen,” he said. “We’re not taking any option off the table.”
Fitzgerald said non-essential personnel at the U.S. Embassy in Abidjan were being offered free flights out of the country, a sign of serious concern over future violence.
The EU called on Ivory Coast’s army on Friday to throw its support behind Ouattara, and Fitzgerald said some soldiers might be ready to take that step.
“He certainly has the military leadership promising him that they will remain loyal. It remains to be seen how far down that goes into the ranks,” Fitzgerald said.
He added that the United States was concerned Gbagbo might fall back on Young Patriot militia loyalists who have been blamed for violence in the past.
“We would counsel him if he wants to avoid international human rights violations and ultimately criminal charges in the future, he should keep these security forces off on the sidelines because that will just raise the price ultimately that he’ll have to pay,” Fitzgerald said.
Editing by Mohammad Zargham