The regional body representing nations in West Africa called on the United Nations Security Council to take immediate steps to force the outgoing president of Ivory Coast to cede office.
In a statement released Thursday, the Economic Community of West African States described the situation in Ivory Coast as a "regional humanitarian emergency" caused by President Laurent Gbagbo's refusal to yield power.
The bloc, known as ECOWAS, said the Security Council needs "to facilitate the immediate transfer of power to Mr. Alassane Ouattara."
Mounting violence in Ivory Coast has claimed the lives of more than 460 people since the Nov. 28 election, wounded many more, displaced an estimated 500,000 people inside the country, and forced over 90,000 to flee Ivory Coast, according to the United Nations.
Gbagbo lost by a nearly 9-point margin to opposition leader Ouattara, but has refused to stand down. His militias, meanwhile, have begun attacking United Nations peacekeepers and foreigners who have been labeled "terrorists" on state TV, in what appears to be a desperate attempt to cling to power.
In recent days, Gbagbo's youth minister Charles Ble Goude has also called for attacks on immigrants from neighboring African countries because their countries refuse to recognize Gbagbo as the country's leader. Immigrants from Burkina Faso, Mali, Niger and Nigeria living in Ivory Coast have been beaten to death with bricks, rods and planks of wood. Several have been set on fire after being "necklaced," a brutal technique in which the victim is set on fire after a tire is wedged down around their body.
In February, the army which remains loyal Gbagbo began using heavy artillery against the population, including opening fire with a tank on a group of unarmed women who had organized an all-women march to demand that Gbagbo leave.
U.N. humanitarian chief Valerie Amos warned Thursday that the escalating violence and use of heavy weapons, especially in urban areas, is increasing civilian casualties. She also expressed concern at "the increasing targeting and harassment of immigrants from other parts of West Africa, thousands of whom are fleeing the country."
"The destruction of civilian property, including shops that provide people a way of making a living, is also completely unacceptable," Amos said in a statement.
Amos said the harassment and obstruction of aid workers from the U.N. and non-governmental organizations and the theft of their assets is compromising their ability to reach people in need. She called on those involved in the violence to respect civilians "and to allow rapid, safe and unimpeded access by humanitarian organizations."
In the resolution published Thursday, the West African bloc said it is "convinced that the current situation is a direct consequence of the refusal of the outgoing President, Mr. Laurent Gbagbo, to cede power to Mr. Alassane Ouattara, the universally recognized winner of the 28 November 2010 election."
The bloc also said that it has "firmly decided that the time has come to enforce its decisions of 7 and 24 December." At those meetings, ECOWAS had ruled they would use all means including "the legitimate use of force" to remove Gbagbo.
Experts on Ivory Coast say that ECOWAS is attempting to replicate what happened in Libya, where the Security Council authorized the use of force. Although ECOWAS has the power to use force on its own, getting a United Nations blessing gives legitimacy to the venture.
In Paris, African Union leader Jean Ping told reporters that Gbagbo is forcing the hand of the international community. Earlier this month, the AU released its final decision on Ivory Coast, calling for Gbagbo to leave and for the country's highest court to swear in Ouattara, who has been forced to live inside a U.N.-protected hotel since the contested election four months ago.
"We had an agreement that could avoid civil war. This agreement was accepted by Ouattara. It was rejected by Gbagbo. We continue to try to persuade (him) to accept the agreement," Ping said.
"But The civil war is almost there. If there is no possibility of a peaceful solution I'm afraid the use of force might intervene."
At U.N. headquarters in New York, a well-informed diplomat said the Security Council has been very careful to follow the African Union, which will discuss Ivory Coast when it meets Friday in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.
The U.N. Security Council will also get a briefing Friday on the situation in Ivory Coast, and according to the diplomat France is likely to say that it is preparing a new resolution that would impose sanctions either against Gbagbo and the political leaders on his side, or against people around Gbagbo who are in his command structure. It would also call for the protection of civilians.
The diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity because talks have been private, said Russia is adamantly opposed to an ECOWAS military operation, which means it will likely never be authorized.
Associated Press Writers Edith M. Lederer at the United Nations and Camille Rustici in Paris contributed to this report.