ABIDJAN, Ivory Coast – African leaders on Monday offered Laurent Gbagbo one last chance to accept an amnesty deal on condition he immediately cede power to the internationally recognized winner of Ivory Coast's presidential election or face a military ouster.
They left hours later with no clear answer from the renegade president who has defied calls to step down, even though results tallied by the country's electoral commission and certified by the United Nations showed he had lost by a landslide to opposition leader Alassane Ouattara.
The trip is the second in less than a week by the three African presidents on behalf of the 15-member Economic Community of West African States, or ECOWAS, in an attempt to give persuasion a final chance before resorting to military force. This time the leaders of Sierra Leone, Benin and Cape Verde were joined by Kenyan Prime Minister Raila Odinga, representing the African Union, as they shuttled between meetings with Gbagbo and Ouattara.
Even as Gbagbo's meeting with the African leaders was going on, his closest advisers continued to insist that the 65-year-old had won the election, indicating that the sitting president did not intend to budge.
Speaking to reporters after meeting with the African leaders, Ouattara told reporters that the dialogue was over.
"For us, the discussion is finished," said Ouattara. "Everything has been done so that we could find a solution through diplomacy and dialogue. Since that is not the case, perhaps Laurent Gbagbo will have a change of heart in coming hours? If not, then ECOWAS will need to use all the means at its disposal including the use of legitimate force so that the president that was elected can assume his functions."
He added that an amnesty deal was still in the realm of possibility, but only if Gbagbo recognizes defeat. "He needs to recognize the results of the election, renounce the powers he has usurped and leave for the sake of all Ivorians."
Despite increasing international pressure including a visa ban slapped on him last month by the European Union, Gbagbo has continued to cling to power with the backing of the army. Human rights groups accuse his security forces of abducting and killing hundreds of political opponents and the U.N. was barred entry from a building believed to be housing 60 to 80 of the bodies.
Although recognized internationally, at home Ouattara has been shut out of the institutions of power. He is attempting to govern from a hotel in Abidjan where he and his staff are barricaded behind sandbags and giant coils of razor wire. He is under the constant protection of United Nations peacekeepers, but Gbagbo's security forces have set up checkpoints on the roads leading to the hotel, barring anyone from entering or exiting.
In recent weeks, getting supplies to the Golf Hotel has become increasingly difficult, and the U.N. started running daily helicopter flights that land on the hotel's lawn ferrying cartons of vegetables and tins of powdered milk.
In Washington, U.S. officials said they remain willing to help Gbagbo make a "dignified exit," including revisiting the visa ban so he can travel to the United States and take up a possible teaching position, but only if he agrees to step down. They said the window of opportunity for that, however, is rapidly closing.
"We hope that President Gbagbo will listen intently to the message that he needs to step down," U.S. State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said. "So far, he hasn't. But we certainly endorse what ECOWAS is trying to do today."
An official from Odinga's office said the Ivorian leader would be guaranteed safety if he agrees to hand over power.
After leaving Ivory Coast late Monday, the African leaders were heading to Nigeria, whose president, Goodluck Jonathan, is the current chairman of ECOWAS, to discuss the next step. Odinga said the African leaders will be making "a comprehensive statement" on their mission after consulting with Jonathan on Tuesday.
Col. Mohammed Yerima, a Nigerian military spokesman, said defense chiefs from ECOWAS member states had met last week to begin strategizing what sort of assault they would use if talks fail.
President Barack Obama tried to call Gbagbo three times last month, including twice from Air Force One. He did not reach Gbagbo and at one point, Obama was told that Gbagbo was 'resting.' Administration officials believe the Ivorian leader sought to avoid contact. So Obama wrote Gbagbo a letter, offering him an international role if he stepped down.
Obama also made clear, however, that the longer Gbagbo holds on, and the more complicit he becomes in violence across the country, the more limited his options become, said a senior administration official who requested anonymity to speak about administration strategy.
Gbagbo, who came to power in 2000 and ruled during the civil war that erupted two years later, overstayed his legal term which expired in 2005, claiming the country was too unstable to organize a poll. The election was rescheduled at least six times before it was finally held in October. During the campaign, one of the slogans of Gbagbo's party's was, "Either we win. Or we win." Some have taken that to mean he never intended to step down, regardless of the results.
Associated Press writers Tom Maliti in Nairobi, Kenya and Julie Pace in Honolulu, Hawaii, and Matt Lee in Washington contributed to this report.