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West African envoys to return to Ivory Coast next week

ABUJA (Reuters) - Three West African presidents will return to Ivory Coast on January 3 for more talks with Laurent Gbagbo, whom they have told to accept that he lost last month’s presidential election or be removed by force.

World powers and African neighbours want Gbagbo to cede power in the world’s top cocoa grower to his rival Alassane Ouattara, internationally recognised as the election winner.

“They are going back on the 3rd of January and when they come back from this second visit the outcome will determine the next action,” Nigeria’s president Goodluck Jonathan, who is also the chairman of the ECOWAS regional grouping, told reporters.

He was speaking after a briefing with the envoys, who were in Ivory Coast this week delivering the ECOWAS ultimatum to Gbagbo. The grouping has threatened to use “legitimate force” if Gbagbo does not step aside.

The November 28 election was meant to reunite Ivory Coast after a 2002-03 civil war split it in two, but the dispute over the results has triggered clashes that have killed more than 170 people and threatens to restart open conflict.

Provisional election commission results showed Ouattara with an 8-point victory, but the figures were quickly overturned by the country’s top court -- run by a Gbagbo ally -- over allegations of fraud.

The United States and European Union have imposed sanctions on Gbagbo and his inner circle, while the World Bank and the West African regional central bank have cut his financing in an attempt to weaken his grip on power.

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The presidents of Benin, Sierra Leone and Cape Verde were sent by ECOWAS to Ivory Coast earlier this week to tell Gbagbo to step down or face force. The envoys agreed to give Gbagbo a week to consider the message, officials in Cape Verde told Reuters on Wednesday.

Jonathan said he was hopeful intervention would not be needed. “Whenever there is a disagreement it is dialogue that resolves it. Dialogue is on,” he said.

ECOWAS member state Gambia said on Wednesday it did not agree with the threat of force.

“The Gambia Government does not subscribe to the use of force (...) to solve disputed election results as that is interfering in the internal affairs of a member state which is illegal under both the ECOWAS and AU Charters,” a statement read over state television said.

The turmoil has pushed cocoa futures to four-month highs amid fears it could eventually disrupt exports. Ivory Coast’s Eurobond, meanwhile, hit a record low last week on concern that the country would not meet a nearly $30 million (19 million pounds) bond payment due on December 31.

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Gbagbo has shown no sign of giving in to the pressure and has accused former colonial power France of orchestrating an international plot alongside the United States to get him out. The French government dismissed the allegations as groundless.

In an attempt to raise pressure on Gbagbo, European Union countries have agreed to recognise only ambassadors appointed by Ouattara, the French foreign ministry said on Wednesday.

“The European Union adopted last week a concerted approach. Only the ambassadors named by President Ouattara will be recognized by the European Union and the member states,” ministry spokesman Bernard Valero said.

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Gbagbo’s government had said on Tuesday it would cut diplomatic ties with countries which recognise ambassadors named by Ouattara.

Diplomatic efforts to resolve the standoff have eased tensions on the streets of Ivory Coast’s main city Abidjan in recent days, with both Ouattara and Gbagbo supporters remaining mostly calm.

A planned mass rally on Wednesday by the powerful pro-Gbagbo “Young Patriot” movement, led by firebrand Charles Ble Goude who is also youth minister in the Gbagbo government, was suspended to allow for negotiations.

Ivory Coast cocoa output, which makes up about a third of world supply, has been running near even with last year in a sign the political upheaval has not significantly affected growing or trucking operations.

Additional reporting by Alvaro Andrade in Cape Verde and Leigh Thomas in Paris; writing by Richard Valdmanis; editing by Giles Elgood