ABIDJAN, Jan 1 (AFP) - Ivory Coast today faced the threat of open conflict after a New Year's midnight deadline set by Alassane Ouattara for his rival Laurent Gbagbo to quit passed unheeded.
Self-proclaimed president Gbagbo vowed not to yield to growing pressure to cede power to Ouattara, the internationally-recognised winner of a November 28 presidential election, with both Britain and the US saying it was time to go.
The midnight deadline issued by Ouattara's camp came as the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay said reports had been received of “at least two mass graves” amid fears of crimes against humanity.
If Gbagbo quit before the start of the New Year, he would “have no worries”, said Ouattara's prime minister Guillaume Soro.
But Gbagbo said in an address to the nation on Friday that he would not cede power to Ouattara.
“We are not going to give up,” Gbagbo said in a New Year's address.
He said pressure from Ouattara's camp and world leaders for him to quit amounted to “an attempted coup d'etat carried out under the banner of the international community”.
West African regional military chiefs have set in motion plans to oust the strongman if negotiations by regional mediators fail, a Nigerian defence spokesman, Colonel Mohamed Yerimah, told AFP in Lagos.
The chiefs of defence staff from West African regional organisation ECOWAS met this week in the Nigerian capital “to put machinery in motion that if all political persuasions fail... ECOWAS will forcefully take over power from Laurent Gbagbo and hand over to Alassane Ouattara,” he said.
British Foreign Secretary William Hague said London would support military intervention in principle but said any such move should first be cleared by the United Nations.
Hague said it was time for Gbagbo “to recognise that he must go”.
US State Department spokesman PJ Crowley said Gbagbo should step down, adding, “we hope he will choose a peaceful transition”.