Pope Benedict XVI pleads for peace in the country and says he has sent Cardinal Turkson as an envoy

Pope Benedict XVI has sent an envoy to Ivory Coast as violence escalates amid fears of all-out war.

Speaking after the Wednesday general audience, the Pope said he had Cardinal Peter Turkson, the president for the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, as his envoy to the west African country, which has been torn by violent clashes since elections were held in November.

The Pope said his thoughts had “often turned to the people of Ivory Coast, traumatised by painful internal strife and serious social and political tensions”.

He said: “While I express my closeness to all those who have lost a loved one and suffer from violence, I urgently appeal for a process of constructive dialogue to be undertaken as soon as possible for the common good. The dramatic opposition makes the restoration of respect and peaceful co-existence more urgent. No effort should be spared in this regard.”

The Pope’s plea came less than a week after the United Nations refugee agency UNHCR announced that almost a million Ivorians had been displaced as the result of clashes between armed forces loyal to the incumbent president Laurent Gbagbo and rebel groups supporting the president-elect Alassane Ouattara.

The conflict has escalated since Mr Gbagbo refused to cede power after the election held on November 28 showed Mr Ouattara had the majority vote. Mr Gbagbo, a Catholic, claimed that the votes in the northern part of the country, Mr Ouattara’s base, had been rigged.

According to UNHCR monitors, locals fear growing violence will turn into a full-blown civil war after Mr Gbagbo called on youths in the capital Abidjan to join the loyalist military effort against the rebel fighters.

Both the United Nations and the European Union are considering imposing harsher sanctions on the country in order to get Mr Gbagbo to cede power to his rival.

Meanwhile, the BBC reported today that up to 30,000 people had taken refuge in a church-run compound in the western Ivorian town of Duekone.