Nigerian president in war-divided Ivory Coast on peace mission

Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo held talks with Ivory Coast's rival factions Friday in a bid to help select a new prime minister for the war-divided nation that would be acceptable to all.

Obasanjo said he had asked all parties to suggest names for a successor to incumbent Seydou Diarra and mediators would study them, looking for common nominations, as discussions continue.

"We are doing everything humanly possible to do it within the shortest time possible," Obasanjo said before boarding a plane back to Nigeria. "I don't think we will be more than a couple of weeks."

Obasanjo, who currently heads the 53-nation African Union, met with President Laurent Gbagbo, Diarra, opposition officials and rebels.

A statement issued earlier by the presidency initially said Obasanjo would travel to the rebel-held city of Bouake during his one-day visit, but that leg of the trip was canceled because rebel leader Guillaume Soro has traveled to Europe. Obasanjo said he would meet Soro soon in Germany.

On Monday, Gbagbo began a U.N.-backed extended year in office that has been fiercely opposed by opposition leaders and rebels who control the northern half of the country.

Gbagbo canceled presidential elections initially slated for Sunday, citing rebels' failure to disarm. Loyalist militias, however, have also failed to lay down weapons under a peace deal, despite repeated pledges to do so.

Rebels say Gbagbo has no constitutional right to stay in power after Sunday, and some Cabinet members say they will no longer recognize his authority. Gbagbo has vowed to stay on until elections are held.

Ivory Coast has been split in two since rebels launched a failed coup bid in 2002.

The African Union and the U.N. Security Council have tried to help resolve the country's latest crisis, backing the prolongation of Gbagbo's mandate and calling for the appointment of a new, more powerful prime minister to help lead the country toward elections within one year.

That plan, however, immediately spurred heated argument over who would be prime minister and how much power the post would command.

Rebels proclaimed Soro the new prime minister on Sunday, but the move has not been taken seriously, partly because rebels have no legal authority to do so. "No matter how clever you may be, you don't make yourself king," Obasanjo said, when asked about the proclamation.

Rebel and opposition officials want to ensure the prime minister has greater powers _ more than the president, something Gbagbo is unlikely to agree to.

Diarra, though considered neutral, is seen as weak and ineffectual. Diarra was picked to head a government of national reconciliation in January 2003 under the terms of a French-brokered peace deal.

Obasanjo did not name any of the suggested successors to Diarra. But contenders mentioned in Ivorian newspapers are Central Bank of West African States governor Charles Konan Banny, former agriculture minister Lambert Kouassi Konan, former U.N. diplomat Amara Essy and former justice minister Jacqueline Oble as likely candidates, AP reported. V.A.

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