UN staff began evacuating from Ivory Coast on Tuesday for fear that a standoff for the presidency could turn violent, but incumbent Laurent Gbagbo continued to defy international calls to quit power.
As the pullout of non-essential UN staff began, Gbagbo raised the stakes in the crisis, with his allies announcing a new government to rival the one declared by Alassane Ouattara, his opponent in last month's disputed election.
International mediators are trying to break the deadlock amid warnings that it could erupt into violent unrest in the west African country, which suffered a civil war in 2002 and 2O03.
But each man has pressed ahead as if in charge. Gbagbo's new chief of staff, his hardline ally Desire Tagro, read out the names of new ministers after they held a first cabinet meeting at the presidential palace in Abidjan.
Meanwhile non-essential staff for the UN mission "have begun leaving the country," a UN official in Abidjan told AFP, without giving further details.
The United Nations in New York put at 460 the number of staff it planned to relocate from Ivory Coast. Liberian officials have also said hundreds of people fearing violence have crossed from western Ivory Coast into Liberia.
US President Barack Obama wrote to Gbagbo, in office since 2000, urging him to cede power to Ouattara, a US official said in Washington, adding that the United States, like the European Union, would consider sanctions on Gbagbo if he clings on.
Gbagbo and Ouattara have both sworn themselves in as president and each has named its own government, leaving Ivorians anxious for how the standoff will be resolved.
In the latest international effort to ease the crisis, West African leaders held an emergency summit of the 15-country ECOWAS regional grouping in Abuja, Nigeria on Tuesday, without inviting Ivorian leaders.
Like the African Union (AU) and other powers, ECOWAS has condemned Gbagbo and recognised Ouattara as president, endorsing election results that Gbagbo's allies have annulled.
The streets of Ivory Coast's main city Abidjan filled up with traffic and pedestrians after several days of tense quiet, but residents remained anxious on Tuesday.
"People are worried," said Marcel, 37, a resident of the Abobo district who asked not to be identified by his family name, complaining that he has little independent news since Gbagbo cut off foreign news broadcasts to the country.
"They are wondering what will happen because if the dialogue runs out that could lead to the use of force by both sides."
International mediators have urged a peaceful end to the crisis which observers say risks dragging the country, once west Africa's most prosperous, back into major unrest. The 2002 war split it in two between north and south.
South African ex-president Thabo Mbeki ended an urgent AU mediation mission Monday with no major announcement.
The northern ex-rebel chief named as prime minister in Ouattara's rival government, Guillaume Soro, held his first cabinet meeting Monday and has warned Gbagbo he could face an armed revolt if he does not back down.
The 28 November election was supposed to ensure peace but instead has been marred by deadly violence. Human rights group Amnesty International said at least 20 people have been shot dead since the November vote.
Gbagbo has extended a nightly curfew to curb disturbances.
Obama wrote to Gbagbo late last week that he "can abide by the results of this election and step aside" or else "face greater international isolation," the official in Washington said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
If Gbagbo clings on, he added, "it's important... that we do begin to discuss accountability measures such as targeted sanctions."
Cocoa prices hit four-month highs on Tuesday, as fears grew for the stability of Ivory Coast, the world's top producer.