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Ivory Coast: Ouattara's Camp Says Mediation Failed ...Insists Force Only Option

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Talks between African leaders and Ivory Coast's Laurent Gbagbo have failed to resolve a bitter election dispute, so force is the only option left to remove him from office, his rival's camp said on Tuesday.

African leaders ended meetings in Ivory Coast on Monday having failed to convince Gbagbo to cede power to Alassane Ouattara, who is widely recognised as winner of a November 28 presidential election.

"No I don't think there was any progress. We are at the same point as we were last time, which is that he keeps refusing to leave," Patrick Achi, spokesman for Ouattara's government, said.

"They didn't persuade him and they just left, but they had to do it to give peace a last chance. The only thing left is ... the military preparation," he added.

Gbagbo's camp were not immediately available for comment.

Four leaders representing West African regional bloc ECOWAS and the African Union (AU) met Gbagbo for several hours in the afternoon before meeting Ouattara in the lagoon-side hotel where he is holed up under guard of U.N. peacekeeping troops.

Rebels who still run the north of the country, seized during the 2002-3 war that divided the nation, have backed Ouattara. ECOWAS has also previously warned that it is prepared to use "legitimate force" to oust Gbagbo if he does not step down.

"The next diplomatic shot might be after ECOWAS has pre-positioned some heavy military muscle nearby and Gbagbo knows this is it," said a diplomat following the process.

ECOWAS has previously sent a force into conflicts in Liberia and Sierra Leone. However, in these cases they were invited by governments in place and West African nations will be wary of being bogged down in fighting with Gbagbo's soldiers.

Meanwhile other concerns, including elections in Nigeria in April and the prospects of reprisal attacks on millions of their citizens in Ivory Coast, are likely to factor in decisions.

Monday's was the second visit by three West African heads of state -- Benin's Boni Yayi, Sierra Leone's Ernest Bai Koroma and Cape Verde's Pedro Pires -- who met Gbagbo last week. Kenyan Prime Minister Raila Odinga joined them on the AU's behalf.

Asked if any face to face meeting between Gbagbo and Ouattara was possible, Achi replied: "Never, ever. As long as he will not be recognised as the elected president of Ivory Coast, he will never meet with president Gbagbo."

While mediation was going on, armed conflict between rival tribes seen as being pro-Gbagbo and pro-Ouattara erupted in west Ivory Coast on Monday, killing at least 3 people and wounding many with gunshots, witnesses and a security official said.

It was not clear if the clashes between Ouattara's Dioula tribe and the Gurer, seen as pro-Gbagbo, was election linked.

Over 170 people have been killed since the elections, which were meant to reunite a country and deliver a stable government that could reverse nearly a decade of economic stagnation.

Diplomats say many of them have been killed by death squads targeting Ouattara supporters at night while hundreds more have been abducted. Gbagbo's camp denies any involvement.

Gbagbo, who has the backing of the country's top court and the army, has shrugged off pressure to step down and accused world leaders of interference in Ivory Coast's sovereign affairs by recognising Ouattara as winner of a U.N.-certified election.

A U.S. official said on Monday Washington was not hopeful for a swift solution but Gbagbo was welcome to seek exile there.

The U.N. has said Gbagbo may be criminally responsible for rights violations, including killings and kidnappings, and diplomats say any deal would need to involve immunity.

Ivory Coast missed a nearly $30 million interest payment on its $2.3 billion Eurobond due on Friday but it is not yet in default because of a 30-day grace period.

The crisis has not yet hurt Ivory Coast's main export, the world's largest cocoa crop, with deliveries matching last year's, although a return to war would be more disruptive.