ABIDJAN: A delegation of West African leaders headed to Ivory Coast on Tuesday to confront Laurent Gbagbo and demand he step down from the presidency before he is forced out.
Sierra Leone’s President Ernest Bai Koroma took off on a flight from Freetown, Sierra Leone, along with other officials from his government.
The presidents of the West African nations of Cape Verde and Benin and of the regional bloc ECOWAS were also expected to converge on Abidjan and meet with Gbagbo later in the day.
"We are leaving today and returning today after discussions with Laurent Gbagbo of the Ivory Coast and we are sure of getting positive results," Sierra Leone’s information and communication minister Ibrahim Ben Kargbo said Tuesday.
The U.N. was tasked with certifying the results of the election as part of a peace agreement that ended a 2002-2003 civil war. The UN declared that Alassane Ouattara won the runoff held one month ago. Gbagbo refuses to concede defeat despite pressure from the United States, the European Union and the African Union.
The Economic Community of West African States, or ECOWAS, has overseen military interventions in West Africa in the past and has said it would use "legitimate force" if Gbagbo does not relinquish power.
Ouattara’s camp is confident that help is coming.
"It’s not a bluff," one senior Ouattara adviser said Monday on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter. "The soldiers are coming much faster than anyone thinks."
Weeks of post election violence have left at least 173 people dead, according to the UN The toll is believed to be much higher. The UN said it has been unable to investigate reports of a mass grave because of restrictions on UN personnel movements.
Residents remain fearful of violence from a military intervention. Dozens of people gathered outside the Nigerian Embassy in Abidjan on Monday, holding signs that read: "We don’t want a military intervention" and "Let Ivorians solve Ivorian problems." Nigeria has the strongest army in the region and is expected to play a major role if an operation is launched to oust Gbagbo.
Still, 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 already overstayed his mandate by five years when the long-delayed presidential election was finally held in October, with the runoff coming in November. The election was intended to help reunify a country that was divided by the 2002-2003 civil war into a rebel-controlled north and a loyalist south.
While Ivory Coast was officially reunited in a 2007 peace deal, Ouattara still draws his support from the northern half of the country, where residents feel they are often treated as foreigners within their own country by southerners.
French troops in Ivory Coast are ready to intervene to protect French citizens there, but any decision about an international military intervention would need to come from the UN or the African Union, French Defense Minister Alain Juppe said Monday.
Additional reporting by Clarence Roy-Macaulay.