Thabo Mbeki begins Ivory Coast mediation mission

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Media captionThe BBC's John James: 'Mbeki will have his work cut out'

South African former leader Thabo Mbeki has held talks with electoral rivals in Ivory Coast, in an effort to mediate in the country's leadership crisis.

Both the incumbent, President Laurent Gbagbo, and opposition candidate Alassane Ouattara have declared victory in last Sunday's presidential run-off.

Mr Ouattara was initially declared the winner but a court overturned the result in Mr Gbagbo's favour.

The African Union has warned the crisis could have "incalculable consequences".

Mr Mbeki met Mr Gbagbo at the presidential residence in Abidjan, Ivory Coast's main city, before leaving for talks with Mr Ouattara at the hotel where he is being guarded by United Nations troops.

"It's obviously very serious," Mr Mbeki told reporters afterwards. "Among other things, it's important not to have violence, not to return to war and so on, to find a peaceful solution."

Earlier, he met the head of the United Nations mission in the country, Young Jin-choi, who has endorsed Mr Ouattara as the winner.

Several countries and international organisations - including the US, the EU, France, and the IMF - have also recognised Mr Ouattara.

Mr Mbeki was also due to discuss the crisis with the head of the Constitutional Council, the country's highest court, which declared Mr Gbagbo the winner on Friday citing irregularities in some areas.

Conflict fear

A statement by the AU, which sent Mr Mbeki on his mediation mission, condemned "any attempt to create a fait accompli to undermine the electoral process and the will of the people".

It called on all parties to "show the necessary restraint and to refrain from taking actions which will exacerbate an already fragile situation".

Mr Mbeki arrived at Abidjan airport on Sunday morning, the first time that the country's borders had been opened since the crisis blew up on Thursday.

When he was president of South Africa, Mr Mbeki helped to mediate a peace deal in Ivory Coast.

It is feared that if he fails to find a way out, rebel groups in the north who support Mr Ouattara will take up arms in protest.

Mr Ouattara was declared the winner on Thursday by Ivory Coast's Election Commission, but its ruling was overturned by the Constitutional Council, which is led by an ally of Mr Gbagbo.

Mr Gbagbo, who has the backing of the head of the country's armed forces, was sworn in for a third term in office at the presidential palace on Friday.

He repeated the accusations of fraud that had led the council to discount large number of ballots in the north, where Mr Ouattara's support is strongest.

"You think that you can cheat, stuff ballot boxes and intimidate voters and that the other side won't see what is going on," Mr Gbagbo said.

'Brief episode'

But within hours, Mr Ouattara, a former prime minister, was himself sworn in at his Abidjan hotel.

He said the election had been "historic" and that he was proud of it, but that the last few days had been "difficult".

Mr Ouattara immediately re-appointed Guillaume Soro as his prime minister. Mr Soro had tendered his resignation in Mr Gbagbo's administration just hours earlier.

Mr Soro - who is the head of the New Forces rebels in the north - has warned that overturning the results threatens to derail attempts to stabilise and reunify the country after the 2002 civil war.

The political crisis has led to protests on the streets of Abidjan, with opposition supporters saying Mr Gbagbo's inauguration amounts to a coup d'etat.

At least four people have been killed in election-related clashes in Abidjan this week.

An overnight curfew remains in place.

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