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UN says 14,000 Flee Ivory Coast for Liberia; Pressure Builds on Gbagbo to Abdicate

by Bate Felix

ABIDJAN - Three West African presidents will fly to Ivory Coast on Tuesday to tell incumbent leader Laurent Gbagbo to quit or face force, Benin said on Saturday, a sign of mounting regional determination to force him out.

Gbagbo has so far resisted calls to cede power to rival presidential candidate Alassane Ouattara after a Nov. 28 election which African neighbours, the United Nations, the United States and the European Union all say Ouattara won.

The United Nations said on Saturday it had so far counted 14,000 refugees fleeing Ivory Coast for neighbouring Liberia since the vote, as fears mount that the dispute will rekindle a 2002-03 civil war.

Humanitarian needs were increasing for the "mostly women and children refugees as well as for the villagers hosting them," UNHCR said on its website. Nearly 200 people have died in violence since the election.

The presidents of Benin, Sierra Leone and Cap Vert will tell Gbagbo on behalf of regional bloc ECOWAS "that he must step down as quickly as possible or face legitimate military force," Benin's Foreign Minister Jean Marie Ehouzou told Reuters.

A spokesman for Gbagbo's government -- which is also facing travel bans and funding freezes -- said on Saturday in an interview with Radio France Internationale that the ECOWAS threat of force was "unjust."

Christmas celebrations were muted in the country as fearful citizens stayed home.

"This is the worst Christmas I have experienced so far. Even in 2002 when there was war, it was better. The problem now is that people are tired. Two presidents, two governments, all this is too much for people," said Saibou Coulibaly, a toy vendor in the main city Abidjan.

RECOGNITION OF RESULT

Gbagbo insists he won the election after the Constitutional Court, which is headed by one of his allies, threw out hundreds of thousands of votes from pro-Ouattara constituencies.

The standoff turned violent last week with brief gun battles between government soldiers loyal to Gbagbo and rebels who now back Ouattara. The United Nations and human rights groups have said gunmen are now attacking pro-Ouattara neighbourhoods by night, kidnapping and killing people.

George Kouadio, a teacher, said he prayed during Christmas Eve mass that the political crisis would not reach the point of renewed civil war.

"Ivory Coast has suffered too much in the past 10 years," he said. "I asked the Lord to help us find peace, but especially give wisdom to our leaders."

Deteriorating security in the former French colony led France this week to urge its 13,000 citizens there to leave.

The West African regional central bank last week cut Gbagbo off from Ivorian accounts, worsening a cash crunch that could make it hard for him to continue paying the wages of soldiers who back him.

The move came on the heels of a decision by the World Bank to freeze some $800 million in committed financing.

Military support for Gbagbo is regarded as one of the main reasons he has been able to defy calls to step down.

Ivory Coast's $2.3 billion bond due in 2032 fell to a record low last week as investors worried the country would not meet a $30 million bond payment on Dec. 31.

The turmoil in Ivory Coast has also sent cocoa prices to four-month highs, disrupting export registrations and raising fears that fighting could block transport and shipping.

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