Backers of Alassane Ouattara were set to march on Friday after bloody clashes erupted in Abidjan and central Côte d’Ivoire leaving a dozen dead and many more hurt, as the stand-off between two self-declared presidents spread to the streets.
Supporters of Ouattara had intended to march Thursday on the headquarters of state television, held by his rival the incumbent Laurent Gbagbo, but fighting broke out when they were faced with heavily-armed security forces.
A Gbagbo spokesperson said 10 protesters and 10 police and soldiers were killed, while rights group Amnesty International confirmed nine dead civilians and Ouattara’s camp said two of its men and 30 demonstrators died.
Former rebels loyal to Ouattara’s choice for prime minister, Guillaume Soro, fought fierce gun battles with Gbagbo’s government security forces in Abidjan and in the central town of Tiebissou on the 2003 civil war ceasefire line.
Soro vowed that Ouattara’s supporters would march again on Friday, despite the violence, and would once more try to take control of RTI state television as well as launching a bid to seize the prime minister’s office.
The UN Security Council meanwhile threatened crimes against humanity action for deadly attacks on civilians, warning all sides “that they will be held accountable for attacks against civilians and will be brought to justice, in accordance with international law and international humanitarian law”.
Journalists saw the bodies of at least four pro-Ouattara protesters dead from bullet wounds in two districts of Abidjan. The Red Cross said it had “treated and evacuated” 80 people hurt in the clashes.
Both Ouattara and Gbagbo claim to have won last month’s election, and both have declared themselves president, leading to a dangerous new stand-off in a country already divided since 2002 into northern and southern armed camps.
Ouattara has been recognised by the international community but has proved unable to assert his rule, with Gbagbo retaining control of the ministries, the army and the cocoa ports that are the key levers of state power.
In Washington, a senior US official predicted that Gbagbo would cede to international pressure and hand over power to Ouattara in the coming days.
“We believe strongly that he is listening attentively to what the United States, France, Ecowas, the African Union are making clear to him,” the official told reporters, speaking on the condition of anonymity.
“He’s got a decision to make and he’s got a limited amount of time to make it. We want to see him make the right decision and we’ve made clear to him that he has a finite amount of time to make that decision,” he added.
Ouattara and Soro began the day on Thursday holed up in the Golf Hotel in a plush suburb of the commercial capital Abidjan, protected by UN peacekeepers, and encircled by a cordon of pro-Gbagbo troops and police.
Former rebel fighters from Soro’s New Forces (FN) ventured out from the hotel to try to dislodge a military road block preventing them from heading to state television, provoking a fierce exchange of fire.
“The prime ministerial security team that was supposed to open a route for the government came under fire from Kalashnikovs and weapons of war, including heavy weapons,” Soro told reporters after the clash.
Several explosions were heard during the clash, and the US State Department said its nearby embassy was damaged by an “errant” rocket-propelled grenade.
“Losses were heavy. Two of the security team were killed, and one critically wounded,” Soro said. Soro claimed that 30 pro-Ouattara demonstrators had been killed city-wide and 110 wounded, but this was impossible to verify.
The United Nations said it had sent 800 troops and eight armoured personnel carriers to defend the Golf Hotel and Ouattara’s shadow government, but a UN spokesperson in Abidjan said they had not yet been caught up in fighting.
Elsewhere across the city, thousands of pro-Ouattara youths fought with police as they tried to try to march on the television station themselves.
RTI state television continued to broadcast US soap operas and pro-Gbagbo messages throughout the day, and its headquarters was protected by a cordon of armoured cars, but Soro urged Ouattara’s supporters not to give up.
“We ask the people to remain ready to engage in peaceful combat for a democratic Ivory Coast,” he told reporters at the Golf.
Meanwhile, in the centre of the country, FN fighters crossed the 2003 ceasefire line and attempted to storm the small town of Tiebissou and open a way to the capital Yamoussoukro, fighters from both sides said.
There was no word on casualty figures from the combatants, but a medical official said that 27 FN fighters with bullet shot wounds had been brought back into northern territory for hospital treatment in Bouake.
Côte d’Ivoire has been split since 2002, when a failed putsch against Gbagbo sparked civil war. Since 2003 there has been a truce, with the north held by the former rebel FN and the south by the government’s FDS. – AFP