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Officials: AU backs Ouattara as Ivory Coast leader

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By MARCO CHOWN OVED
The Associated Press
Thursday, March 10, 2011; 5:47 PM

ABIDJAN, Ivory Coast -- The African Union handed a resounding victory to Alassane Ouattara on Thursday in a decision reaffirming him as the legal president of Ivory Coast and saying the country's highest court must swear him in, officials said.

The decision adopted by the African Union's Peace and Security Council and read to African leaders in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, has not been made public, but the contents were confirmed by members of both competing governments in Ivory Coast.

The decision, which calls on Laurent Gbagbo to leave office, is the final diplomatic victory for Ouattara who has been recognized by governments around the world as the country's legitimate president but who has been unable to assume office because Gbagbo is refusing to leave the presidential palace.

The election standoff has degenerated into bloody street battles and Ivory Coast stands on the brink of civil war, with the pro-Gbagbo army accused of gunning down hundreds of civilians who voted for Ouattara.

The resolution states that the council "reaffirms the victory of Mr. Alassane Dramane Ouattara in the election of Nov. 28, 2010" and that "Mr. Laurent Gbagbo must leave in the superior interest of the Ivorian people, and to safeguard peace."

The African Union's Peace and Security Council calls on Ivory Coast's constitutional council to swear Ouattara in as president.

The draft resolution still has a blank where the date of the swearing in ceremony was to be written. An adviser to Ouattara, who spoke on the telephone from Addis Ababa, said the timeline had not yet been agreed upon, but that it would likely be within the next week. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he wasn't authorized to speak to the media.

It was the constitutional council, led by a close ally of Gbagbo, that overturned the results of the country's election commission in December, giving victory to Gbagbo, even though the results showed Ouattara won by over 54 percent and were certified by the United Nations.

To be able to declare Gbagbo the winner, the council annulled results from the northern half of Ivory Coast, the region where Ouattara was born, throwing out more than half a million ballots from areas that had voted overwhelmingly in his favor.

It's unclear how the African Union plans to force Gbagbo to step down. He has refused similar calls from other world and regional bodies, including the United Nations' Security Council and the Economic Community of West African States, which had warned that it would use all the means necessary, including an armed intervention to force Gbagbo out.

Reached in his hotel room in Addis Ababa, Gbagbo's representative, Pascal Affi N'Guessan, who served as his campaign manager and is president of his political party, said that the decision by the African Union council is untenable.

"This decision is not satisfactory for us. We would like to tell the council that it is in fact unacceptable," he said by telephone. "We know that President Gbagbo was proclaimed the winner of the election. He was sworn in by the constitutional council, and I don't think they can ignore this reality and demand that the council swear in another candidate."

The AU resolution also calls on Ouattara to appoint a government of national unity and reconciliation which would include members of Gbagbo's party.

The resolution clears the way for the military option because if Gbagbo refuses to go, Ouattara and his supporters can claim they exhausted every diplomatic option before resorting to force. Already the northern suburbs of this commercial capital are controlled by rebels backing Ouattara who say they are waiting to march on the palace.

On Thursday, an AP reporter visited the area called PK-18, so named because it is 18 kilometers, or K, north of the Plateau district, hence P, where the presidency is located.

Getting to the area involves leaving a highway where a final military checkpoint is guarded by soldiers loyal to Gbagbo, and then passing a line of control, manned by gunmen claiming allegiance to Ouattara.

On Friday, Ouattara is expected to travel to Abuja, Nigeria, his adviser said, where he will meet with President Goodluck Jonathan, the chairman of the Economic Community of West African States in order to further discuss the military option.

Earlier on Thursday, Gbagbo - who sent a delegation to represent him in Addis Ababa - declared that United Nations aircraft would no longer be able to fly over Ivory Coast.

The decision was ignored by the U.N., which continued to patrol the city from the air, but the timing of the announcement appeared to indicate that Gbagbo may try to prevent Ouattara from returning.

Since the disputed election, Ouattara has been barricaded inside a resort hotel protected by sandbags, concertina wire and hundreds of United Nations soldiers. To leave he was forced to take a U.N. helicopter from the hotel's lawn to the northern city of Bouake, controlled by rebels that support him, before boarding a charter plane to Ethiopia.

The trip marked the first time that Ouattara has left the country since the political standoff began, but his spokesman dismissed Gbagbo's order as another empty threat.

"Laurent Gbagbo is no longer the president of Ivory Coast - his decisions mean nothing," said Patrick Achi, the spokesman for Ouattara's government. "He told the ambassadors to leave. They're still here. He told the United Nations to quit, their ranks were reinforced. He said the helicopters could no longer fly, the helicopters are flying all over Abidjan."

---

Associated Press Writer Marco Chown Oved contributed to this report.


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