ABIDJAN/ABUJA (Reuters) - Ivory Coast’s Laurent Gbagbo has agreed to further talks to end his country’s post-election crisis, buying himself time after a demand by African leaders that he step down or face force.
Despite the move, a solution to the standoff in the world’s top cocoa producer still appears far off, with the incumbent leader showing no signs of caving to mounting international pressure to cede power to rival Alassane Ouattara, who is widely believed to have won a November 28 presidential vote.
More than 170 people have been killed since the dispute started, rekindling divisions in the country that have festered since a 2002-03 civil war.
A senior aide told Reuters on Tuesday that Gbagbo had agreed to more talks and would ease a blockade on the Lagoon-side hotel where Ouattara is trapped under the guard of U.N. peacekeepers. He said, however, that Gbagbo would not step down.
“(Gbagbo’s) victory is non-negotiable,” Pascal Affi N’Guessan told Reuters by telephone. “That said, we can discuss anything with no conditions.”
West African regional bloc ECOWAS said in a press release earlier on Tuesday that Gbagbo had “agreed to negotiate a peaceful end to the crisis without any preconditions.”
ECOWAS previously sent a delegation to tell Gbagbo to step down or face a possible military intervention.
N’Guessan said Gbagbo’s forces would begin allowing traffic through military roadblocks set up around the Golf Hotel where Ouattara has made its base, but U.N. spokesman Martin Nesirky told reporters at the U.N. headquarters in New York that that had yet to take effect.
Gbagbo’s rivals have said they will refuse to negotiate unless he steps down.
Leaders from West African regional bloc ECOWAS and the African Union met both Gbagbo and Ouattara separately on Monday.
“Let me say without any equivocation that the military option is still on the card,” ECOWAS President James Victor Gbeho said on Tuesday after envoys briefed Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan on the talks.
But “even if there is a half percent chance of resolving the problem peacefully they will exploit it,” he said.
Earlier, Ouattara’s camp said talks had failed.
The visit by the four leaders follows a previous trip by ECOWAS envoys last week.
“The next diplomatic shot might be after ECOWAS has pre-positioned some heavy military muscle,” said one diplomat.
ECOWAS has previously sent troops into conflicts in Liberia and Sierra Leone. However, in these cases they were invited by governments in place and West African nations will be wary of getting bogged down in fighting with Gbagbo’s soldiers.
Meanwhile other concerns, including elections in current ECOWAS chair country Nigeria, and the prospects of reprisal attacks on millions of their citizens in Ivory Coast, are likely to reduce the chance of an intervention.
“Force is always going to be a last resort, but what about the consequences of an intervention and the massive fallout for the entire region? ECOWAS is perhaps not willing or able to handle this,” said Vox Frontier’s Rolake Akinola.
Rebels who still run the north have said they would support any intervention to remove Gbagbo.
In a sign of growing tensions, fighting between rival tribes seen to be pro-Gbagbo and pro-Ouattara erupted in west Ivory Coast on Monday, killing at least 3 people and wounding many with gunshots, witnesses and a security official said.
Ouattara’s party also said police raided its headquarters, killing two. The police were unable to confirm the report.
Diplomats say many people have been killed by death squads in recent weeks targeting Ouattara supporters at night and hundreds more have been abducted.
Gbagbo’s camp denies any involvement.
The U.N. has said Gbagbo may be criminally responsible for rights violations, including killings and kidnappings.
The United States, which among other countries has said it might accept Gbagbo if that would help defuse the crisis, said time was growing short for any “dignified exit” for him in light of mounting accusations of violence.
“Much of this violence has been perpetrated at the behest of President Gbagbo,” State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said. “There should be consequences for what has occurred.”
Gbagbo, who has the backing of the country’s top court and the army, has shrugged off pressure to step down and accused world leaders of interference in Ivory Coast’s affairs.
Ivory Coast missed a nearly $30 million interest payment on its $2.3 billion Eurobond due on Friday but it is not yet in default because of a 30-day grace period.
The crisis has not yet hurt Ivory Coast’s main export, the world’s largest cocoa crop, with deliveries matching last year’s, although a return to war would be more disruptive.
Additional reporting by Ange Aboa and Richard Valdmanis; Writing by Tim Cocks; Editing by David Lewis and Noah Barkin