Ivory Coast's incumbent leader Laurent Gbagbo has said he will reject a demand by African heads of state on Monday that he cede power to his rival Alassane Ouattara or face force.
Four leaders representing West African regional bloc ECOWAS and the African Union are due to meet with Gbagbo to ask him to give up the presidency after a November 28 poll that internationally recognized results showed he lost.
More than 170 people have been killed since the start of the standoff in the world's top cocoa grower, which threatens to restart open conflict in the country still split in two by a 2002-03 civil war.
Gbagbo, who has the backing of the country's top court and the army, has shrugged off pressure to step down and said on state television on the weekend that Ouattara "should not count on foreign armies to come and make him president."
|Incumbent Ivory Coast leader Laurent Gbagbo stands after a meeting in Abidjan December 28, 2010|
A Gbagbo spokesman said Gbagbo, who has been in power since 2000, would not agree to leave.
Ivory Coast's constitutional court, run by a staunch Gbagbo ally, reversed the U.N.-ratified electoral commission results showing a Ouattara win, citing massive evidence of fraud.
Three west African heads of state -- Benin's Boni Yayi, Sierra Leone's Ernest Bai Koroma and Cape Verde's Pedro Pires -- will return to Abidjan after an initial trip last week failed to convince Gbagbo to step down.
Kenyan Prime Minister Raila Odinga will join them.
"He will be the voice of the African Union," according to a statement issued by Odinga's office.
"He will seek a peaceful settlement to the election crisis (...) and seek an assurance of safety and security for Mr. Laurent Gbagbo and his supporters, if he agrees to cede power."
The United States and the European Union have imposed a travel ban on Gbagbo and his inner circle, while the World Bank and the regional West African central bank have frozen his finances in an attempt to weaken his grip on power.
If military forces are eventually sent in by ECOWAS, it may trigger open conflict between Gbagbo's government army and the ECOWAS force, known as ECOMOG, and northern rebels who tried to topple him in 2002 may also get involved.
Ouattara's camp say the army is divided and most troops would put up little resistance to a sufficient display of force.
But West African leaders are seen as unlikely to carry through the threat of force because of the risk of being bogged down in an urban war and might lack the operational intelligence to track Gbagbo and his supporters down in a strike.
Nigeria, the backbone of ECOMOG, has its own growing security issues at home -- and its own elections in April.
The United Nations has also said Gbagbo may be criminally responsible for human rights violations, including killings and kidnappings by security forces since the election.
Ouattara's Prime Minister Guillaume Soro, confined with the rest of Ouattara's rival government to the lagoon-side Golf Hotel under the protection of 600 U.N. troops, told reporters at the weekend that Gbagbo has only days to leave power peacefully.
The message the African neighbors were bringing "seems clear," he said. "This is the last chance for Mr. Gbagbo to get a peaceful departure from power and a guarantee of immunity."
Fears of an escalation of violence has led more than 18,000 people to leave Ivory Coast for neighboring Liberia, according to the United Nations.
Cocoa output from Ivory Coast has remained relatively robust despite the turmoil, helping drive cocoa futures below four-month peaks hit in December.