Ivory Coast President Laurent Gbagbo said on Sunday he would stay in office despite a clash between his security forces and opposition protesters who demanded he step down at midnight at the end of his term.
"The President of the Republic will carry on guaranteeing the continuity of the state ... until elections are held," Gbagbo said in a broadcast to the nation.
"I will never allow the decapitation of the state of Ivory Coast," he added, rejecting the demands of political foes and armed rebels who have occupied the north of the country since a 2002 civil war that split the world's No. 1 cocoa grower in two.
Earlier, soldiers and riot police in the country's main commercial city Abidjan fired warning shots and tear gas to turn back a protest march by opposition supporters who were advancing towards the presidential palace.
Several people were reported injured but it was not clear how seriously, U.N. sources said.
Several hundred protesters took to the streets, lighting piles of burning rubbish, after earlier attending a big anti-Gbagbo rally. But they scattered when soldiers and police fired their automatic rifles into the air and launched tear gas.
Gbagbo, who said he was acting according to the constitution, blamed his opponents for the fact that elections originally scheduled to be held on Sunday were not taking place.
He said the rebels, who have warned they will not recognise him as president after Sunday, had failed to disarm and unify the country in line with internationally-brokered peace efforts.
Gbagbo said he would seek to implement a recent United Nations resolution which foresees him staying on for up to 12 months more until elections are held, and also calls for the appointment of a strong prime minister acceptable to all sides.
"I hope elections will take place well before 12 months ... that is a job I will entrust to my new prime minister whom we will name in a few days," Gbagbo said.
At the anti-government rallies in Abidjan and the rebel-held north, opposition youth leaders repeated threats to force Gbagbo out with street protests.
"At midnight Gbagbo is no longer president. In a few hours, we are going to take power," Jean Ble Guirao, an opposition youth leader, told the Abidjan rally.
The authorities had banned any protests which failed to remain within an enclosed area.
The army reinforced security around the presidential palace, deploying extra patrols and several armoured cars. A U.N. source said Nigerian President and African Union chairman Olusegun Obasanjo was expected in Abidjan early next week to lend his support to the U.N. peace plan.
Opposition and rebel leaders have rejected the U.N. formula keeping Gbagbo in office. They insist the new prime minister should come from their ranks.
In a statement, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan urged Ivorians to keep working for peace, reports the Reuters. I.L.
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