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U.S. ratchets up pressure as Ivory Coast leader clings to power

African leaders on Monday are offering Laurent Gbagbo an amnesty deal on condition he cedes the presidency peacefully to the internationally recognized winner of Ivory Coast's elections, an official said Monday.

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Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, January 8, 2011; 7:01 PM

The U.S. government is stepping up pressure on the leader of Ivory Coast to leave office, imposing new sanctions after appeals by President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton failed to resolve an election crisis that is turning increasingly bloody.

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The standoff in the African nation threatens to reignite a civil war that killed thousands of people in 2002 and 2003. In addition, Obama administration officials worry that a botched election could set a dangerous precedent, with Africans in several other countries set to go to the polls this year.

The Treasury Department announced the new sanctions Thursday, as President Laurent Gbagbo continued to refuse to hand off power to his old rival, Alassane Ouattara, who has been internationally recognized as the winner of the Nov. 28 election.

The measures freeze U.S. property belonging to Gbagbo, his wife and three of his advisers, and prohibit Americans from doing business with them. Such actions have an echo effect internationally, since major financial institutions often suspend dealings with U.S.-designated targets.

The sanctions follow a U.S. ban on travel by Gbagbo and his associates, and similar targeted measures by European and African countries.

"Essentially what we've wanted to present from the beginning of the crisis . . . is a choice, so on the one hand, [Gbagbo] sees there's a way out for him, should he choose to do the right thing and step down," said Ben Rhodes, the deputy U.S. national security adviser for strategic communications. "If he doesn't, there is going to be a steady ratcheting up of pressure."

At least 200 people have been killed in post-election violence, according to the United Nations.

Ouattara is holed up at a hotel in the country's business capital, Abidjan, protected by U.N. peacekeepers.

The international community has been unusually united on the Ivory Coast crisis. The 16-nation West African group known as ECOWAS has threatened military intervention if Gbagbo doesn't step down, and the U.N. Security Council sent a powerful signal by recognizing his rival's victory.

None of that, however, has moved the recalcitrant Ivorian. And on Friday, the possibility of a military operation seemed to diminish as Ghana said it couldn't contribute troops.

"The problem is, the U.S. and everybody else can do everything right, but if Gbagbo is willing to bring the country down around him and relaunch a conflict, he can probably do that," said Jennifer G. Cooke, director of the Africa program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Most nonhumanitarian U.S. aid to Ivory Coast was suspended after a 1999 coup. Washington has sought to work with European and African countries, the United Nations and international financial institutions to pressure Gbagbo to step down.

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