ABIDJAN, Ivory Coast – Ivorians unevenly followed a general strike aimed at pressuring their incumbent leader Laurent Gbagbo to step down, largely sticking to the same fracture lines that marked the West African nation's civil war eight years ago.
Supporters of Alassane Ouattara, widely recognized as the winner of a Nov. 28 runoff vote against Gbagbo, called for the strike to begin Monday. It turned Bouake, the rebel capital, into a ghost town, but much of Abidjan, Ivory Coast's largest city, did not follow the strike and Gagnoa, a Gbagbo stronghold, was open for business.
The West African regional bloc ECOWAS has given Gbagbo an ultimatum to step aside, and suggested it would use force if necessary to oust him. Gbagbo has shown no hint that he is close to stepping down, however, and doubts exist about whether the bloc could carry out such a military operation.
Ouattara's camp remains confident that help is coming, and soon.
"It's not a bluff," one senior Ouattara adviser said on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter. "The soldiers are coming much faster than anyone thinks."
Dozens of people gathered outside the Nigerian Embassy in Abidjan on Monday, holding signs that read: "We don't want a military intervention" and "Let Ivorians solve Ivorian problems." Nigeria has the strongest army in the region and probably would play a major role if an operation were launched to oust Gbagbo.
"We think that the parties concerned should be able to reach whatever solutions they should arrive at amicably and without any foreign intervention," said protester Harry Osemegi.
Weeks of violence over the election have left at least 173 people dead, according to the U.N. The toll is believed to be much higher, as the U.N. said it has been unable to investigate reports of a mass grave because of restrictions on U.N. personnel movements.
Human rights groups have expressed alarm about hundreds of arrests, and dozens of cases of torture and disappearances since the vote that they blame on security forces associated with Gbagbo. Gbagbo supporters say at least 36 of the victims were police or other security forces who were targeted by gunfire coming from protesters.
Dozens of women gathered in Abidjan to pray for peace Monday.
"We are in trouble and we don't know what to do. We are not politicians; we have had sleepless nights. We are stressed that's why we have come here to cry to God," said Edith Esther, an Abidjan resident.
The U.N. declared that Ouattara won the election, but Gbagbo refuses to concede defeat and leave despite admonitions from the U.N., the United States, European Union and the African Union.
ECOWAS was sending a high-level delegation — the presidents of Sierra Leone, Cape Verde, Benin and ECOWAS — to Ivory Coast early Tuesday morning, said Ibrahim Ben Kargbo, Sierra Leone's information and communication minister.
If Gbagbo doesn't leave office, "the community would be left with no alternative but to take other measures, including the use of legitimate force, to achieve the goals of the Ivorian people," the regional bloc said late Friday.
U.S. State Department spokesman Mark Toner said the United States supports the presidents' mission and remains very concerned that Gbagbo has refused to cede power. "We continue to work with the international community in trying to bring about a peaceful resolution and urge President Gbagbo to recognize the will of the people and step down," he said.
Gbagbo has been in power since 2000 and had already overstayed his mandate by five years when the long-delayed presidential election was finally held.
As part of a peace accord, the U.N. had been invited to certify the election results and declared Ouattara as the winner of the Nov. 28 runoff vote. But a Gbagbo ally overturned those results by throwing out half a million ballots from Ouattara strongholds in the north. The move angered people who had waited for years as officials settled who would be allowed to vote in the long-delayed election, differentiating between Ivorians with roots in neighboring countries and foreigners.
In an interview with Associated Press Television News on Sunday, Gbagbo said he was not concerned about world opinion, insisting he was duly elected. He said of his detractors: "Maybe they do not want me, I admit it, but I am not looking to be loved by them. I respect and abide by the Ivorians' vote."
The vote was intended to help reunify the country, which was divided by the 2002-2003 civil war into a rebel-controlled north and a loyalist south.
Instead, the election has renewed divisions that threaten to plunge the country back into civil war. While Ivory Coast was officially reunited in a 2007 peace deal, Ouattara still draws his support from the northern half of the country, where residents feel they are often treated as foreigners within their own country by southerners.
While the threat of a military intervention creates pressure on Gbagbo, Africa security analyst Peter Pham said there are "serious doubts that ECOWAS has the wherewithal to carry it out."
"None of the ECOWAS countries has the type of special operations forces capable of a 'decapitation strike' to remove the regime leadership," said Pham, who is the senior vice president of the National Committee on American Foreign Policy in New York. "That leaves the rather unpalatable option of mounting a full-scale invasion of the sort that would inevitably involve urban fighting and civilian casualties."
In 1998, West Africa forces bombed and seized Sierra Leone's capital, forcing leaders of a military junta to flee and allowing an elected president, Ahmad Tejan Kabbah, to return to power. A coalition of West African peacekeepers, most of them Nigerian, remained to bolster Kabbah, who declared Sierra Leone's long civil war over in 2002.
French troops in Ivory Coast are ready to intervene to protect French citizens there, but any decision about an international military intervention would need to come from the U.N. or the African Union, French Defense Minister Alain Juppe said Monday.
Associated Press writers Clarence Roy-Macaulay in Freetown, Sierra Leone, and Matthew Lee in Washington contributed to this report.