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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Time is running out for Ivory Coast's embattled Laurent Gbagbo, who is in a significantly weakened position and should step aside now to avoid further violence, the United States said Thursday.
"It is absolutely clear that he is in a substantial and significantly weakened position having lost most of the territory that he holds in the south and with defections among his...military ranks," U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Johnnie Carson said.
"There is still an opportunity for Gbagbo to step aside in a fashion which will prevent widespread bloodshed," Carson said. "We hope that he will see and seize this opportunity to step aside peacefully and encourage his supporters to lay down their arms."
The United States has joined with most of the rest of the international community in recognizing Alassane Ouattara as the winner of Ivory Coast's presidential polls last November which Gbagbo rejected.
Carson said Ouattara's forces appeared to be making a final push, and called on all sides to exercise restraint and act to protect civilians.
"There is a clear indication that the military forces of Gbabgo have in fact started to disintegrate," Carson said, adding that the United States remained concerned about undisciplined youth supporters who may act recklessly.
"If in fact there is major violence in Abidjan and Gbagbo does not step aside, he and those around him, including his wife Simone Gbagbo, will have to be held accountable for the actions that they failed to take to stop it," Carson said.
France, the former colonial power in the cocoa producing country, has 1,000 troops in Ivory Coast to protect its nationals and support a U.N. peacekeeping force.
Carson rejected comparisons to the situation in Libya, where the United States joined an international coalition to help enforce U.N.-mandated steps to protect civilians from the forces of leader Muammar Gaddafi.
"The former government of Laurent Gbagbo does not have helicopter gunships, jet aviation or tanks in the numbers that we have seen in (Libya), nor have we seen the tremendous loss of life or the exceedingly large number of people racing for the borders," Carson said.
"This is not to say that there is not a humanitarian crisis in the Ivory Coast, there is," he said, adding that the time was now for Gbagbo to give up.
"He does have an opportunity. But that opportunity is slipping away," he said.
Reporting by Andrew Quinn; editing by Doina Chiacu and Vicki Allen