Stretford , Urmston , Trafford Photographer

Gbagbo courts rivals in I.Coast crisis

Laurent Gbagbo wants to “sit down and talk” with his internationally-backed rival for power in Ivory Coast, reports said Friday, as he faced growing isolation after disputed polls

With world powers freezing him out as he clings defiantly to power, newspaper reports indicated Gbagbo had made the first sign of a move to tackle the potentially violent standoff.

“Let’s sit down and talk,” Gbagbo was quoted as saying by papers including state daily Fraternite Matin, in a nod to Alassane Ouattara, who has declared himself president based on a UN-endorsed vote-count.

An official in the Gbagbo camp told AFP earlier: “President Gbagbo thinks that with a certain amount of lobbying, we will find a solution.”

Fraternite Matin quoted Gbagbo as telling traditional leaders whom he hosted at the presidential palace that “there will be no war” in Ivory Coast, despite widespread warnings that his standoff with Ouattara could erupt into unrest.

Election-related clashes left at least 20 people dead, according to Amnesty International. The UN refugee agency said Friday some 2,000 people fearing violence have fled west from Ivory Coast to neighbouring Liberia and Guinea.

The refugees said their move was “precautionary, prompted by fears of instability and violence as the political deadlock persists,” said UNHCR spokesman Andrej Mahecic in Geneva.

Ouattara’s side earlier said it aimed to make “effective” its authority in the country this week and upped the ante late Thursday by issuing a statement demanding that the military and civil service switch allegiance to Ouattara.

Gbagbo still has nominal control of the national military while Guillaume Soro, the man Ouattara has named prime minister, has a smaller army of several thousand northern New Forces (FN) troops behind him.

Soro, who was formerly Gbagbo’s prime minister under an earlier peace deal, has warned the FN could mobilise if Gbagbo does not budge but stressed he is still seeking a peaceful solution.

The FN control the north of the country since a 2002 civil war that split the country in two. For now, “the New Forces are vigilant, but they are not making any move,” said one Western military source.

“We are going to try to get him out without causing any damage,” a senior official close to Soro said of Gbagbo. But an official close to Ouattara told AFP: “Time is against us.”

Key international players have demanded that Gbagbo step aside for Ouattara.

The African Union (AU) has suspended Ivory Coast from its ranks until Ouattara is formally in charge, and the UN Security Council made a joint statement in Ouattara’s favour.

The 53-nation AU’s decision capped Gbagbo’s growing diplomatic isolation, while key African players Kenya and South Africa have thrown their weight behind Ouattara.

The United States has also intensified threats to squeeze Gbagbo. A letter to him from US President Barack Obama “made clear that if he makes the wrong choice … we would look at possible sanctions against him and others if necessary,” State Department spokesman Philip Crowley said.

France said it was on alert to evacuate thousands of its nationals from its former star colony if the situation turned ugly.

The United Nations has already ordered 460 non-essential staff out of the country and foreign companies have evacuated expatriates.

Gbagbo has exercised a 10-year grip on power in the West African nation, the world’s top cocoa producer.

He remained president after his term expired in 2005 as elections were postponed six times. The second-round runoff was finally held on November 28.

The electoral commission results, endorsed by the United Nations, gave Ouattara victory, but Gbagbo’s allies overturned them, alleging irregularities. Both men then declared themselves president and formed rival governments.