AU Ivory Coast panel - limited options
Addis Ababa - A high-level panel named by the African Union faces an uphill battle in agreeing a unified stand on Ivory Coast's political crisis and has limited new options to offer the country's two rival leaders.
Divisions were laid bare at the two-day AU summit that ended on Monday, with the leaders agreeing to set up a panel made up of the presidents of Burkina Faso, Chad, South Africa, Mauritania and Tanzania to work out an exit strategy.
AU commission chief Jean Ping said last week that the panel will aim to help Alassane Ouattara, the internationally recognised winner of disputed November elections, "exercise power" through a negotiated political deal.
The panel members met for the first time on Monday to outline their strategy and are to travel to Ivory Coast at a yet undetermined date to submit binding proposals for the two rival leaders.
While the west African bloc Ecowas favours the use of force to oust strongman Laurent Gbagbo, South African President Jacob Zuma, a member of the new AU panel, recently called for a review of the strategy calling for one of the rivals to go.
Uganda's President Yoweri Museveni also pressed for an investigation into the disputed Ivorian November 28 presidential run-off, a strategy the UN chief Ban Ki-moon said would be a "grave injustice".
"Then what exactly is the AU panel going to negotiate," said one diplomat attending the AU summit in Addis Ababa.
"The initial positions taken by the AU and Ecowas were very clear. They left no window for negotiations," said Jakkie Cilliers, the director of the Institute for Security Studies.
"The panel must now try to find room for negotiations," Cilliers added.
While UN peacekeeping supremo Alain Le Roy ruled out any power-sharing deal between Gbagbo and Ouattara, Ban now underscored the importance of a "peaceful and honourable exit" for Gbagbo and urged "President Ouattara to form a national unity government".
For Cilliers, the two-day AU summit highlighted "deep divisions" between Nigeria and South Africa, which does not support the call for Ggabgo to go.
Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan, the current chair of 15-nation Ecowas bloc, had threatened to use force if Laurent Gbagbo does not step down.
But with Ouattara holed up in a hotel in Abidjan, Gbagbo has shown no sign that he is willing to accept defeat and there have been signs recently that the west African region's resolve to intervene militarily is weakening.
The AU panel was set up after previous attempts by Kenyan Prime Minister Raila Odinga , appointed late last year by the AU as its mediator to the crisis, failed to make any headway in the long-running turmoil.
Odinga's two missions to Ivory Coast were unable to bring Ouattara and Gbagbo to the negotiating table and blamed Gbagbo for failing to lift the siege around his rival's hotel.
Odinga urged the summit to "send a strong message" that the Ivorian foes should have face-to-face talks.