Gbagbo guard mounts last stand in Côte d'Ivoire
Rebel forces in Côte d’Ivoire have laid siege to the presidential palace as president Laurent Gbagbo made a last stand and the battle for power in Abidjan raged for a second day, with the UN mission coming under heavy fire.
Forces backing presidential claimant Alassane Ouattara have overrun nearly three-quarters of Côte d’Ivoire and looked poised to topple Gbagbo, but after entering the economic capital met with stiff resistance outside his fortified residence and office. With reports of beatings, looting and arson on the streets of Abidjan, residents barricaded inside their homes reported heavy arms fire throughout the early morning on Friday. On the peninsula where the palace is situated buildings were shaking with each explosion, witnesses said.
Ouattara’s spokesperson, Patrick Achi, told Reuters: “His house is under attack. That’s for sure. There is a resistance, but it’s under attack. [Gbagbo] hasn’t shown any signs of giving up. I don’t think he will see the game is up, because he really believes God will save him ... Gbagbo is in his house. I’m certain. He hasn’t gone anywhere.”
Ouattara ordered the borders closed to prevent Gbagbo and his allies fleeing. Ouattara’s foreign affairs minister told the Associated Press: “His inner circle is trying to run, but they won’t be able to.”
Not seen in public for five days, Gbagbo has been weakened by high-level defections in the military. The regular army put up almost no opposition during a four-day offensive, including in Gbagbo’s home town, where rebels said they broke into his compound and slept in his bed.
About 50 000 soldiers, police and gendarmes have abandoned Gbagbo, according to the head of the UN mission, Choi Young-jin. “Only the Republican Guard and his special forces remain loyal, guarding the palace and residence,” he told France-Info. The chair of the commission of the African Union, Jean Ping, urged him to immediately hand power to Ouattara “in order to shorten the suffering of the Ivorians”. But a core of Gbagbo loyalists have fought to defend their shrinking territory. A spokesperson, Abdon Georges Bayeto, told the BBC: “The president is not going to step down. He’s been elected for five years and we are going to put up a fight.” The heaviest clashes were at the state TV station, which went off air after Ouattara forces seized it overnight. Gbagbo’s forces said they had retaken it this morning. A senior diplomat said fighting continued.
Heavy weapons fire was also heard at two military bases.
Amid a sense of anarchy, the UN called on Ouattara to rein in his forces. A spokesperson for the UN Commissioner for Human Rights said: “We are receiving unconfirmed but worrying reports that [pro-Ouattara forces] have been committing human rights violations.”
French forces took 500 foreigners, made up of 150 French nationals plus other Europeans and also Lebanese citizens, to safety in a military camp. Thierry Burkhard, a spokesperson, told Reuters: “There is a security vacuum and that has opened the way for looters to roam the streets.” There were no plans to repatriate the French nationals, he said. “There is no proof the French are specifically targeted. The looters are pillaging houses where there is something to take.”
The UN said its compound came under heavy gunfire on Thursday afternoon from Gbagbo’s special forces, entrenched close to the presidential palace. The UN troops returned fire in a gun battle that lasted three hours.
Zahra Abidi, a Swedish official of the UN peacekeeping mission, was killed on Thursday. A security source said she was standing on the balcony of a friend’s house while shooting was going on nearby and was hit by a bullet.
Charity workers said it had become impossible for people in Abidjan to obtain medical care. Many are also out of food and water, as the markets are closed.
Gbagbo lost last November’s presidential election, according to his country’s election commission and international observers, but has refused to step down. Sanctions imposed on him and his circle have failed to dislodge him.
The offensive is expected to end Gbagbo’s regime within hours or days. “It’s over except for the shooting,” one diplomat said.
The four-month stand-off since the election has killed nearly 500 people, according to UN figures, although the real toll is probably far higher. About a million have fled Abidjan alone, and 122 000 more have crossed into Liberia, according to the UN. - guardian.co.uk