Clock ticking as I.Coast's Ouattara issues ultimatum

ABIDJAN (AFP) – Ivory Coast on Friday faced the threat of open conflict as self-proclaimed president Laurent Gbagbo vowed not to yield to pressure to step down and his rival gave him until midnight to quit.

Gbagbo was under growing pressure to cede power to Alassane Ouattara, the internationally-recognised winner of a November 28 presidential election, with both Britain and US saying it was time to go.

The internationally recognised election winner Alassane Ouattara pictured on December 8. AFP

The midnight deadline issued by Ouattara's camp came as the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay said reports had been received of "at least two mass graves" amid fears of crimes against humanity there.

If Gbagbo quits before the start of the New Year, he will "have no worries", said Ouattara's prime minister Guillaume Soro.

West African regional military chiefs have set in motion plans to oust the strongman if negotiations by regional mediators fail, a Nigerian defence spokesman, Colonel Mohamed Yerimah, told AFP in Lagos.

The chiefs of defence staff from West African regional organisation ECOWAS met this week in the Nigerian capital "to put machinery in motion that if all political persuasions fail... ECOWAS will forcefully take over power from Laurent Gbagbo and hand over to Alassane Ouattara," he said.

British Foreign Secretary William Hague said London would support military intervention in principle but said any such move should first be cleared by the United Nations.

Hague said it was time for Gbagbo "to recognise that he must go."

US State Department spokesman PJ Crowley said Gbagbo should step down, adding, "we hope he will choose a peaceful transition".

UN human rights experts meanwhile said they feared gross human rights violations being committed in Ivory Coast could amount to "crimes against humanity".

Evidence from credible sources suggested "enforced or involuntary disappearances, arbitrary detentions and extrajudicial or arbitrary executions and sexual violence had occurred and may still be occurring" in Ivory Coast, they said in a statement.

Pillay said the UN had received reports of at least two mass graves.

But she said "human rights teams have been denied access to the scenes of these atrocities in order to investigate them".

She said she had also written to Gbagbo and other key figures in his regime warning they would be held personally responsible for human rights violations.

The European Union on Friday approved sanctions against 59 people linked to Gbagbo's regime, diplomats said.

Those targeted will not be given EU visas, the sources said. Two others had been on an earlier list but were exempted after acknowledging Ouattara.

Ouattara is being protected by UN peacekeepers who on Friday were staring down a threat to storm a hotel which he has made his temporary headquarters in Abidjan.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon warned UN troops would use "all necessary means" to resist any assault on the hotel.

Gbagbo's notorious "Street General", Minister for Youth Charles Ble Goude, on Wednesday urged Ivorian youths to rise up after the New Year to seize control of Ouattara's headquarters in the waterfront Golf Hotel resort.

The UN's chief peacekeeper accused Gbagbo's state media of "inciting hatred" against UN troops and as West African leaders promised to try once more to negotiate a peaceful settlement to the crisis.

Ouattara's once-plush hotel is protected by a small contingent of lightly armed former rebel fighters known as the New Forces and 800 United Nations troops equipped with armoured vehicles and re-supplied by helicopter.

It is surrounded by Gbagbo's well-armed regulars, the Ivory Coast Defence and Security Forces (FDS), but Ouattara's camp is more concerned about Ble Goude's threat to send thousands of unarmed youths to storm the hotel.

ECOWAS has a standby troubleshooting force of 6,500 soldiers which officials said is almost ready to deploy.

"This is the last resort but hopefully Gbagbo will be persuaded to hand over power politically without military cohesion," Yerimah, the Nigerian defence spokesman, told AFP.

Both Gbagbo and Ouattara claim to have won last month's presidential election, but only the latter has been recognised as president by the world community, including the ECOWAS regional group and the United Nations.

Hopes for a negotiated settlement have come to rest on the West African leaders represented by ECOWAS, who have voted to authorise military intervention if Gbagbo refuses to step aside for Ouattara.

A delegation of three West African presidents came to Abidjan on Tuesday to deliver an ultimatum, but left without a clear result, and have since said they are still pressing for a peaceful solution.

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