Tension Escalates In Ivory Coast Over Political Crisis

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West African leaders have left Ivory Coast without solving the country's political crisis. The leaders on Tuesday delivered an ultimatum to Laurent Gbagbo to step down or face a military ouster. The U.N. says Gbagbo lost last month's disputed presidential election.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

The Ivory Coast has been in the news this week, partly because its longtime president refuses to leave office after losing an election, and partly because the leaders of several other African countries are talking about sending in forces to push him out.

NPR's Ofeibea Quist-Arcton is following developments there, and joins us on the line.

And, Ofeibea, three West African presidents were sent as envoys to Ivory Coast yesterday, representing other countries in the West. What happened?

OFEIBEA QUIST-ARCTON: Well, they went with an ultimatum from the West African regional bloc - the Economic Community of West African States - with an ultimatum for the incumbent, Laurent Gbagbo, saying you must step down now, or, as you said in your introduction, you could face military intervention from the region.

But they didn't leave Abidjan last night after a day of negotiations and mediations and consultations with Laurent Gbagbo. He's still sitting pretty in the presidential palace in Abidjan, with the army still loyal to him and still in control of the national airwaves. So from that point of view, the mediation mission failed.

MONTAGNE: How unusual is this ultimatum, this sort of threat of, you know, move on or we'll help you along?

QUIST-ARCTON: Oh, very unusual. The West African community has spoken robustly about the situation in Ivory Coast. Ivory Coast is a pivotal nation for the region. It used to be the nation where everybody from neighboring countries came to work to the build the economy.

It's considered very much the West African El Dorado. But for the past 10 years or so, there has been turbulence and rebellion, an attempted coup and a country split by civil war. So regional leaders are absolutely desperate to keep Ivory Coast peaceful. If this country blows up, it means that it destabilizes the whole region.

So they have been very firm with Laurent Gbagbo, saying that you lost this election, certified by the United Nations. You have to hand over power to the presidential challenger, Alassan Ouattara, and you have to do it now.

But Laurent Gbagbo, he's a street fighter. He's a bruiser. He's used to getting his way. And he doesn't want to be seen to be weak. And in this instance, he is not only staying put, but he seems to have hardened his position. He's now saying that any country that recognizes Ouattara as president or that accepts Ouattara's ambassadors, accepts their credentials, he will break diplomatic ties with them. So it looks as if we're moving nowhere fast.

MONTAGE: A complete political impasse, then?

QUIST-ARCTON: Oh, yes, for the past month. And the political impasse letters come with violence that has come with what are known as the death squads acting under cover of darkness and during curfew, allegedly picking up those considered to be opponents of Laurent Gbagbo. Some have disappeared.

The U.N. is talking about at least 137 dead. We've got up to 20,000 people have fled across the border into Liberia - Liberia, which is itself emerging from a civil war. So there's an atmosphere of total tension and a real fear of a return to some sort of armed action, either regional intervention or a return to civil war. People in Ivory Coast are really frightened.

MONTAGNE: Ofeibea, thanks very much.

QUIST-ARCTON: Always a pleasure.

MONTAGNE: NPR's Ofeibea Quist-Arcton.

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MONTAGNE: This is NPR News.

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