The chairman of West Africa's regional bloc on Tuesday criticized South Africa for sending a warship to the region amid Ivory Coast's political crisis, but the South African government maintained it had sent the vessel as a negotiating venue.

The dispute comes amid a growing rift between African nations on how to resolve the political stalemate in Ivory Coast. Incumbent leader Laurent Gbagbo has refused to cede power more than two months after the U.N. said he lost the election.

James Victor Gbeho, president of the West African bloc of states known as ECOWAS, said Tuesday the presence of a South African warship "can only complicate the matter further."

"The solidarity that started among us in the international community is fast being eroded because certain countries are picking sides and therefore are disagreeing with the decision already taken," he said in Abuja, Nigeria, where the 15-nation regional bloc is based.

South African defense department spokesman Siphiwe Dlamini said the ship is not supplying military support to Gbagbo or to the internationally recognized election winner, Alassane Ouattara.

The vessel has been in international waters off West Africa for about two weeks for routine training and is there in case it is needed, Dlamini said.

The African Union last week asked the presidents of Chad, Mauritania, South Africa, Tanzania and Burkina Faso to find a peaceful way to install Ouattara, as president. The leaders sent a team of 15 experts to Abidjan on Sunday, who will eventually be followed by the presidents.

AU representative Ambroise Nyonsaba said Monday the leaders would try to organize a face-to-face meeting between Gbagbo and Ouattara, both of whom claim to be the elected president.

South Africa, though, has never endorsed Ouattara as president unlike the African Union, and instead has suggested a recount of the votes — echoing calls made by Gbagbo for such a move.

However, South African President Jacob Zuma this week denied supporting Gbagbo and said South Africa remains a neutral mediator in the political deadlock, according to state-funded South African Broadcasting Corp.

ECOWAS has threatened military invasion to oust Gbagbo if negotiations fail, though several countries have since expressed reservations about using force and no deadline has been set.

The crisis has fractured African nations into three camps: pro-Gbagbo, anti-Gbagbo and neutral, according to Rinaldo Depagne, the International Crisis Group's senior analyst for West Africa.

Depagne put South Africa and Angola in the lead of the pro-Gbagbo camp that includes Uganda, Gambia and Zimbabwe. Meanwhile, Nigeria, Senegal, Kenya and Ivory Coast neighbor Burkina Faso take a hard line and want military intervention.

The majority of African nations favor a negotiated solution, Depagne said, including Libya, Congo, Gabon, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Guinea, Cameroon and Tanzania.

Jendayi Frazer, former U.S. assistant secretary of state for African affairs and professor at Carnegie Mellon University, said "The South African government would support Gbagbo because that's historically who they have supported." She added that the country may have significant economic interests at stake.

"We find that others are encouraging Gbagbo not to yield, probably because they can give him certain things that ECOWAS does not have," Gbeho said Tuesday.

Nigeria's Foreign Minister Odein Ajumogobia last week proposed a naval blockade to enforce sanctions imposed against Gbagbo.

In an op-ed article in This Day newspaper of Lagos, he noted that the proposal for military intervention has provoked some dissent, but added: "The use of 'legitimate force' is however not exclusively about military warfare in the conventional sense and therefore does not necessary connote an 'invasion' by troops."

He said that "legitimate force can include, for example, a naval blockade to enforce sanctions which might be imposed against Gbagbo."

Ivory Coast was divided into a rebel-controlled north and a loyalist south by a 2002-2003 civil war. The country was officially reunited in a 2007 peace deal, but the long-delayed presidential election was intended to help reunify the nation. Instead, the U.N. says at least 260 people have been killed in violence since the vote.


Associated Press writers Michelle Faul and Jenny Gross in Johannesburg contributed to this report.

(This version CORRECTS that Jendayi is a female.)