ABIDJAN, Ivory Coast – The top U.N. official in Ivory Coast said Thursday he is willing to talk to Laurent Gbagbo, who is refusing to relinquish power after a disputed election. The African Union suspended the country's membership in the latest sign of growing pressure.
Gbagbo has retreated further and further in recent days, encircling himself with hard-liners and going so far as to refuse a telephone call over the weekend from U.S. President Barack Obama.
The United Nations reviewed results from 20,000 polling stations before concluding that Gbagbo had lost by "an irrefutable margin" to opposition leader Alassane Ouattara.
U.N. Special Representative Choi Young-jin arrived Thursday at the Golf Hotel and met behind closed doors with Ouattara, who has been forced to use the hotel as his headquarters because Gbagbo is not allowing him access to the presidential palace. The hotel has turned into a fortress, protected by sandbags, coils of barbed wire and armored personnel carriers amid rumors the military under Gbagbo's control was planning an assault.
The country has been on a knife's edge since last week when the electoral commission released the results showing Ouattara had won by a nearly 10-point margin. The international community including the United States, the European Union, former colonizer France, the African Union and the United Nations have spoken in one voice telling Gbagbo to step aside.
The AU's Peace and Security Council met Thursday and suspended Ivory Coast, saying it "strongly urges Mr. Laurent Gbagbo to respect the results of the election and to facilitate, without delay, the transfer of power to the President-Elect, in the best interest of Cote d'Ivoire, the region and Africa as a whole."
The urbane 65-year-old who spent years as an expatriate in France is facing personal sanctions including a travel ban that would target not only him but also his family, his children and his wife and may prevent him from leaving the country.
Among the only countries in Europe that has not spoken out against Gbagbo is Russia, prompting one senior diplomat to joke that Gbagbo may need to take his summer vacation in Moscow.
"I am ready to pay a visit to Gbagbo," Choi told reporters as he emerged from his meeting with Ouattara.
Despite the increasing pressure, Gbagbo has appeared unflappable, going ahead with a rushed inauguration and later naming government ministers to his cabinet. He has banned foreign TV and radio, and citizens have been fed a 24-hour cycle of images showing him taking the oath of office and interviews with constitutional experts explaining why Gbagbo is the legitimate president.
Ivory Coast is proving to be a test case for democracy in Africa because it is the only place where the U.N. was invited by the country itself to organize the election and give the final verdict on the votes' outcome. The agreement was part of a peace accord signed by Gbagbo.
In recent years disputed elections in Kenya and Zimbabwe have been resolved by forcing the opposition to accept a power-sharing agreement with the incumbent. Diplomats say that is off the table in Ivory Coast, because the results were certified by the U.N.
Once considered an African success story, Ivory Coast's economy was destroyed by the 2002-2003 civil war. Gbagbo, who was president when the war broke out, failed to hold elections in 2005 when his term expired because armed rebels still controlled the northern half of the country.
The country remained in political deadlock, with repeated outbursts of fighting until 2007, when a deal was signed by all the parties paving the way for the election.
In the three years that followed, the ballot was rescheduled at least six times, with Gbagbo complaining over technicalities regarding the voter roll and the makeup of the electoral commission.
Associated Press writer Marco Chown Oved contributed to this report.