NAIROBI, Kenya – The African Union's envoy said Wednesday that mediators in the Ivory Coast political crisis will "go the extra mile" to negotiate Laurent Gbagbo's removal from power to avoid the bloodshed that would likely occur if force is used.
West African leaders have threatened to use military force to oust Gbagbo, who has clung to power more than a month after the United Nations said he lost the presidential runoff vote to rival Alassane Ouattara after a decade in power.
Kenya's Prime Minister Raila Odinga, who joined a troika of West African leaders as the African Union's envoy in recent talks, said mediation takes time, giving his own experience as an example. Kenyan political rivals disputed the presidential poll results three years ago and violence broke out killing more than 1,000 people. It took two months to negotiate an end to that crisis.
Odinga became prime minister under a power-sharing deal with his then rival, President Mwai Kibaki.
In the case of Ivory Coast, the African Union and Economic Community of West African States are trying to get Gbagbo to peacefully step down in favor of the internationally recognized winner of the election, Ouattara.
"But force, in our view, should be the last resort because as you know use of force has consequences. Lives will be lost, not just lives of soldiers but also lives of innocent civilians," Odinga told journalists in the Kenyan capital, Nairobi, following his visits to Ivory Coast and Nigeria this week. "That's really the reason why we are walking the extra mile for a peaceful resolution of this conflict."
Odinga represented the African Union when a high-level delegation went on Monday for the second time to urge Gbagbo to step down, but he rebuffed their appeal.
The delegation, which included the leaders from the nations of Benin, Cape Verde and Sierra Leone then traveled to Nigeria to meet with Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan, the current chairman of the 15-nation regional bloc ECOWAS.
ECOWAS and the African Union released a statement late Tuesday indicating that Gbagbo had "agreed to negotiate a peaceful end to the crisis without any preconditions." But the statement did not elaborate on what actions that would entail other than lifting a blockade around the hotel where his rival is based, and Gbagbo had not relinquished power Tuesday. The statement also called on Gbagbo to hand over power "without further delay."
Odinga said that an amnesty deal is on the table for Gbagbo that includes guarantees he will not be prosecuted if he peacefully hands over power whether he stays in Ivory Coast or goes into exile. Such a deal will be extended to members of Gbagbo's entourage, unless they are found to have committed crimes against humanity, Odinga said.
"There will be an amnesty for him (Gbagbo) that he will not be prosecuted or persecuted in the event that he decides to remain in the country and that he will be allowed to go about his business normally," Odinga said.
U.S. State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley told journalists on Tuesday that the United States is willing to discuss granting Gbagbo exile, with conditions attached.
"If he is interested in coming to the United States — and, quite honestly, there's no indication that he is — we would entertain that as a means of resolving the current situation," said Crowley. "But, any consideration of travel to the United States would have to take into account what has happened on the ground in the past few weeks."
Odinga said another delegation, including him, will return to Ivory Coast to continue talks. But first the presidents of Benin, Cape Verde and Sierra Leone will report to a full meeting of ECOWAS heads of state about the status of negotiations.
When the West African leaders first went to Ivory Coast last week to force Gbagbo into exile they failed, and there were no signs that Gbagbo had softened his position after Monday's follow-up meeting.
"For us, the discussion is finished," Ouattara said after meeting with the African leaders on Monday.
Early on Tuesday morning, security forces surrounded the headquarters of a political party allied with Ouattara, and opened fire with automatic weapons, according to three witnesses including a woman living in a nearby building who saw the shooting from a balcony and a foreign diplomat who was awoken by the gunfire.
At least one person was killed and as many as 130 were arrested, said Simon Munzu, head of the U.N. human rights division in Ivory Coast who said his staff was barred from entering the building belonging to politician Henri Konan Bedie.
Human rights groups accuse incumbent Gbagbo's security forces of abducting and killing political opponents, though Gbagbo allies deny the allegations and say some of the victims were security forces killed by protesters. The U.N. has confirmed at least 173 deaths.
Despite increasing international pressure, including visa bans by the European Union and the U.S., Gbagbo has stayed in power with the backing of the army. Human rights groups accuse his security forces of abducting and killing hundreds of political opponents. The U.N. has been barred entry from a building believed to be housing 60 to 80 of the bodies.
Associated Press writers Rukmini Callimachi in Abidjan, Ivory Coast; Bashir Adigun in Abuja, Nigeria; and Matthew Lee in Washington contributed to this report.