West African presidents to tell Gbagbo to quit

ABIDJAN, (Reuters) – Three West African presidents  will fly to Ivory Coast on Tuesday to tell incumbent leader  Laurent Gbagbo to quit or face force, Benin said yesterday, a  sign of mounting regional determination to force him out.
Gbagbo has so far resisted calls to cede power to rival  presidential candidate Alassane Ouattara after a Nov. 28  election which African neighbours, the United Nations, the  United States and the European Union all say Ouattara won.
The United Nations said yesterday it had so far counted  14,000 refugees fleeing Ivory Coast for neighbouring Liberia  since the vote, as fears mount that the dispute will rekindle a  2002-03 civil war.
Humanitarian needs were increasing for the “mostly women and  children refugees as well as for the villagers hosting them”,  UNHCR said on its website. Nearly 200 people have died in  violence since the election.
The presidents of Benin, Sierra Leone and Cap Vert will tell  Gbagbo on behalf of regional bloc ECOWAS “that he must step down  as quickly as possible or face legitimate military force,”  Benin’s Foreign Minister Jean Marie Ehouzou told Reuters.
A spokesman for Gbagbo’s government — which is also facing  travel bans and funding freezes — said on Saturday in an  interview with Radio France Internationale that the ECOWAS  threat of force was “unjust”.
Christmas celebrations were muted in the country as fearful  citizens stayed home.
“This is the worst Christmas I have experienced so far. Even  in 2002 when there was war, it was better. The problem now is  that people are tired. Two presidents, two governments, all this  is too much for people,” said Saibou Coulibaly, a toy vendor in  the main city Abidjan.
Gbagbo insists he won the election after the Constitutional  Court, which is headed by one of his allies, threw out hundreds  of thousands of votes from pro-Ouattara constituencies.
The standoff turned violent last week with brief gun battles  between government soldiers loyal to Gbagbo and rebels who now  back Ouattara. The United Nations and human rights groups have  said gunmen are now attacking pro-Ouattara neighbourhoods by  night, kidnapping and killing people.
George Kouadio, a teacher, said he prayed during Christmas  Eve mass that the political crisis would not reach the point of  renewed civil war.
“Ivory Coast has suffered too much in the past 10 years,” he  said. “I asked the Lord to help us find peace, but especially  give wisdom to our leaders.”
Deteriorating security in the former French colony led  France this week to urge its 13,000 citizens there to leave.
The West African regional central bank last week cut Gbagbo  off from Ivorian accounts, worsening a cash crunch that could  make it hard for him to continue paying the wages of soldiers  who back him.
The move came on the heels of a decision by the World Bank  to freeze some $800 million in committed financing.
Military support for Gbagbo is regarded as one of the main  reasons he has been able to defy calls to step down.
Ivory Coast’s $2.3 billion bond due in 2032 fell to a record  low last week as investors worried the country would not meet a  $30 million bond payment on Dec. 31.
The turmoil in Ivory Coast has also sent cocoa prices to  four-month highs, disrupting export registrations and raising  fears that fighting could block transport and shipping.

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