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Violence fears grow in Ivory Coast

Fears of renewed fighting in Ivory Coast grew following a threat from West African neighbours to force out incumbent leader Laurent Gbagbo if he does not soon heed international calls to step down from power.

West African leaders are giving Gbagbo an ultimatum this week to step aside, though he has shown no interest in doing so since the demand was made late on Friday. While doubts exist about whether the region could carry out such a military operation, Alassane Ouattara's camp remains confident that help is coming, and soon.

"It's not a bluff," one senior Ouattara adviser said. "The soldiers are coming much faster than anyone thinks."

Residents remain fearful of the violence such an intervention could unleash if attempted. Dozens of people gathered outside the Nigerian Embassy in Abidjan, holding signs that read: "We don't want a military intervention" and "Let Ivorians solve Ivorian problems."

Nigeria has the strongest army in the region and is expected to play a major role if an operation is launched to oust Gbagbo.

"We think that the parties concerned should be able to reach whatever solutions they should arrive at amicably and without any foreign intervention," said protester Harry Osemegi.

Elsewhere in Abidjan, dozens of women gathered to pray for peace after weeks of violence that have left at least 173 people dead, according to the UN. The toll is believed to be much higher, as the UN said it has been unable to investigate reports of a mass grave because of restrictions on UN personnel movements.

"We are in trouble and we don't know what to do. We are not politicians; we have had sleepless nights. We are stressed that's why we have come here to cry to God," said Edith Esther, an Abidjan resident.

The UN declared that Alassane Ouattara won the presidential run-off election held nearly one month ago, but Gbagbo refuses to concede defeat and leave despite admonitions from the UN, US, European Union and the African Union.

The West African regional bloc ECOWAS is sending a high-level delegation of three leaders to Abidjan this week to meet Gbagbo as "an ultimate gesture". Presidents from Sierra Leone, Cape Verde and Benin will be travelling to Ivory Coast early on Tuesday, said Ibrahim Ben Kargbo, Sierra Leone's information and communication minister.

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