Ivory Coast's Gbagbo gets ultimatum to go into exile

West African leaders delivered a final ultimatum to Laurent Gbagbo in person yesterday, threatening that the military would oust him if he doesn't go into exile, a month after the disputed election.

The delegation was led by presidents from Sierra Leone, Cape Verde and Benin, who held a three-hour meeting with Gbagbo. The incumbent leader who has been in power for a decade in Ivory Coast has shown no interest in stepping aside, despite international calls for him to go.

The delegation headed next to the hotel, where the internationally recognized winner Alassane Ouattara is based. While Ouattara has been endorsed by most of the world, Gbagbo maintains control of Ivory Coast's military and security forces.

The 15-nation regional bloc Economic Community Of West African States (Ecowas) has threatened to use "legitimate force" if Gbagbo does not relinquish power. Nigeria has the strongest army in the region and is expected to play a major role if an operation is launched to oust Gbagbo.

Ouattara's camp has been confident in recent days that such help is coming. "It's not a bluff," one senior Ouattara adviser said on Monday, on condition of anonymity. "The soldiers are coming much faster than anyone thinks."

Ecowas has intervened in past disputes, including the seizing of Sierra Leone's capital in 1998 that forced military junta leaders to flee, and allowed an elected president to return to power. It also intervened in Liberia in 1990, when its forces stayed for several years, and it has sent troops to Guinea-Bissau.

Some analysts feel an Ecowas mission in Ivory Coast would entail a full-scale invasion, risking numerous civilian casualties. Weeks of post-election violence have left at least 173 people dead so far, according to the UN. The actual toll is believed to be much higher as the UN said it has been unable to investigate reports of a mass grave because of restrictions on personnel movements.

The French government says its forces in Ivory Coast will protect French citizens but won't be making any decisions about an international military intervention.

Many Ivorians are terrified of Gbagbo's security forces. Human rights groups blame security forces associated with Gbagbo for hundreds of arrests and dozens of cases of torture and disappearances since the election. A Gbagbo adviser has said he does not believe his supporters could be behind the violence.

Gbagbo has been in power since 2000 and had overstayed by five years when the election was held in October. It was supposed to reunify a country divided by civil war in 2002-2003.

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