Ouattara camp denies breakthrough on talks

Ouattara camp denies breakthrough on talks

A spokesman for Ivory Coast's internationally recognised president Alassane Ouattara on Tuesday denied breakthrough talks with his rival Laurent Gbagbo were planned as the military raided the headquarters of the parties backing Ouattara, dpa reported.

Gbagbo has resisted fierce international pressure to hand over power to Ouattara - who is trying to run an alternative government from a United Nations-protected hotel in the economic capital Abidjan - in a standoff that has claimed over 170 lives.

Kenyan Prime Minister Raila Odinga on Monday joined three West African heads of state representing the 15-member Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) in the latest attempt to persuade the defiant strongman to leave power.

While the delegation, the second involving the presidents of Benin, Sierra Leone and Cape Verde, failed to budge Gbagbo, Odinga said the men had agreed to meet under certain conditions.

"This is totally wrong," Patrick Achi, spokesman for Ouattara's alternative government, told the German Press Agency dpa. "We said that once Ouattara is in office as president then he can meet former president Gbagbo as he would meet anyone else."

Tensions are rising as the standoff continues, and witnesses said pro-Gbagbo soldiers staged an early morning raid on the headquarters of the RHDP - a coalition of parties backing Ouattara.

"They started to break the doors of the different offices. They fired warning shots and shot tear gas at us as we tried to resist the assault," said Diabate Losseni, the head of the RDHP's youth wing. "I have 20 colleagues who have been arrested and detained in custody."

ECOWAS has warned Gbagbo it could use force to oust him if he does not step down, and Achi said he expected the regional bloc to stick to its word now that its second attempt at persuasion has failed.

"If he doesn't want to move quickly or peacefully they said they would use force to remove him," he said. "They asked him to leave and he didn't, so you should ask them where they are with that."

The delegation on Tuesday met Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan, the current chairman of ECOWAS, to discuss the next step in the impasse.

A communique issued by ECOWAS after the meeting said Ggagbo had agreed to "negotiate a peaceful end to the crisis" and lift the blockade around the Golf Hotel.

Ouattara said he would be willing to allow Gbagbo a "dignified exit," according to the communique.

Speaking to the press in the Nigerian capital Abuja, Jonathan said the threat of force "still stands" although he did not give any information on the next steps.

Some observers feel ECOWAS will be reluctant to insert a military force given the negative implications for regional security and upcoming elections in Nigeria, which would be the most likely candidate for providing troops.

The elections were supposed to open a more positive chapter in Ivory Coast's history eight years after civil war split the West African nation into the mainly Muslim north, which backs Ouattara, and Christian south, where Gbagbo holds sway.

Instead, the polls only highlighted north-south divisions after a Gbagbo ally on the constitutional council overturned electoral commission results proclaiming Ouattara the winner.

Gbagbo, who insists he is Ivory Coast's true leader, has defied European Union and United States travel bans, as well as aid freezes from bodies such as the World Bank and the blocking of access to public funds in regional banks.

The UN has accused pro-Gbagbo forces of extrajudicial killings and disappearances of Ouattara supporters amid unconfirmed reports of the existence of mass graves.

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