An upsurge in factional fighting in Côte d’Ivoire on Wednesday threatened diplomatic efforts to end a months-old tug-of-war between rival claimants to the presidency of the world’s top cocoa producer.
Exchanges of gunfire, including with heavy weapons, were reported in Abidjan in a district controlled by forces loyal to Alassane Ouattara, the internationally recognised Ivorian leader, residents said.
“There’s constant firing [in the northern Abobo district]. People are locked up in their homes,” said one resident.
Another spoke of ongoing clashes with heavy weapons.
Clashes broke out in the working-class district late on Tuesday, claiming the lives of about 10 troops loyal to Laurent Gbagbo, the outgoing president who has refused to relinquish power.
The surging tension comes as the African Union (AU) has stepped up efforts to break the impasse.
The presidents of Chad, Mauritania, South Africa and Tanzania, appointed by the AU, met Gbagbo and Ouattara on Monday and Tuesday in a bid to forge a binding agreement by the end of February.
Force would be used
Members of a high-level group led by Mauritania’s Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz have begun leaving for Nouakchott and were to arrive in the Mauritanian capital in the coming days to hammer out next steps.
The African Union has backed a peaceful resolution to the crisis, but former mediator Raila Odinga, the Kenyan prime minister, said Wednesday that force would be used if economic sanctions do not result in Gbagbo’s ouster.
Odinga, whose efforts to mediate an end to the standoff failed last year, made the remarks at a news conference in Nairobi.
The Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas) has also threatened the use of force to oust Gbagbo from the presidential palace.
Meanwhile on Tuesday Ouattara extended a ban on cocoa exports, a cornerstone of the economy, to March 15. He had ordered a one-month halt on January 24 in an attempt to choke off funding for Gbagbo.
Ahead of Tuesday’s fighting, Gbagbo forces deployed two armoured vehicles at a central roundabout and cordoned off some areas of Abidjan’s Abobo district.
‘Getting out of here’
Residents reported fighting with heavy weapons late in the day between Gbagbo’s Defence and Security Forces (FDS) and unidentified armed men.
A security source said an elite unit, the Security Operations Command Centre or Cecos, lost around 10 men in an ambush.
A high-ranking Cecos official told Agence France-Presse (AFP) however that the unit lost only three men while another seven suffered bullet wounds, and that the unit killed seven assailants.
Witnesses said the death toll was heavier and included many civilians. The body of a civilian killed by bullets lay in a pool of blood outside a petrol station early on Wednesday.
The violence occurred in Abobo as well as in the southern Koumassi and Treichville districts, corroborating sources said.
“The assailants have taken control of the area since yesterday and killed uniformed men,” one woman told AFP, balancing a bundle of belongings on her head. “I’m getting out of here.”
The Gbagbo government claims that “rebels” operating in the area had killed around 10 FDS men since January and before Tuesday’s fighting.
The Ouattara camp, allied with the New Forces former rebel group that has controlled the north of Côte d’Ivoire since 2002, denies any involvement in Tuesday’s fighting.
Inspired by the uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia, backers of Ouattara last week stepped up calls for a “revolution” to force Gbagbo out.
FDS forces have killed at least 10 pro-Ouattara demonstrators since Saturday when the pro-Gbagbo soldiers fired real bullets into the crowds, corroborating sources said.
Post-election violence has claimed more then 300 lives since mid-December, according to the United Nations. – AFP