Côte d’Ivoire in tense stand-off as rivals hold positions

Fighters loyal to Côte d’Ivoire presidential rivals Laurent Gbagbo and Alassane Ouattara held their respective positions across Abidjan on Sunday, a day that saw less fighting than the previous three.

Following three days of pitched battles, Reuters correspondents and witnesses said the main city in the world’s top cocoa-growing nation was quieter but tense, with sporadic gunfire and explosions heard in some neighbourhoods.

Forces loyal to Ouattara, who United Nations-certified results show won a November 28 presidential election, are battling to forcefully remove Gbagbo, who refuses to step down. The months of post-election turmoil has killed more than 1 000 and rekindled the country’s 2002/03 civil war.

“There has been no fighting here. We are awaiting the resumption of hostilities at any time and we are prepared to defend ourselves and maintain control of Abidjan by all means,” a pro-Gbagbo officer at the presidential palace told Reuters.

“Taking Abidjan will be tough, no one should think that we will easily abandon our positions. We are determined,” he said.

A Western diplomat said an attack had been planned on Saturday on the presidential residence, but it did not happen, possibly because of the human shield of Gbagbo’s youth group.

The diplomat said explosions came from near the state TV channel RTI, which Gbagbo forces said they took back on Friday.

The television has been broadcasting virulent anti-UN, anti-US and anti-French messages and calls to Gbagbo supporters to join the fight, but the French-based Reporters without Borders said RTI could be broadcasting from a villa or mobile truck in Abidjan because its broadcasting centre is severely damaged.

Interior Minister Emile Guirielou and the leader of Gbagbo’s violent youth wing Charles Ble Goude called on the youth to take to the streets to help fight the rebels, and the “mercenaries” from the United Nations and France helping them.

“With the complicity of the United Nations and Licorne [the French force], the rebels sow terror in our country. Our army will fight the rebels and their mercenaries,” Goude said. “Patriots, together we will finally liberate our country.”

There has been no sign of Gbagbo. State TV has said he is in his residence, but has produced no speech by him.

Meanwhile the United Nations mission in Côte d’Ivoire (UNOCI) said it had relocated 200 staff to the north of the country after they came under attack.

After swiftly taking control of the interior, pro-Ouattara forces have met fierce resistance over the past three days in Abidjan where Gbagbo’s troops hold on to positions around the presidential palace, Gbagbo’s residence, and state television.

Initially suffering heavy defeats and defections among the top ranks in his army, Gbagbo counts about 3 000 republican guards, some loyal soldiers and his youth wing, the Young Patriots, who have responded to calls to form a human chain around the presidential palace and Gbagbo’s residence.

A military source told Reuters Côte d’Ivoire army chief General Philippe Mangou left the residence of the South African ambassador in Abidjan and rejoined forces loyal to Gbagbo.

Mangou had sought refuge with his family at the residence on Wednesday night as Ouattara forces seized large swathes of territory.

“General Mangou came back to take up his duties at the head of the army today,” the source close to Gbagbo’s forces told Reuters. South Africa authorities were not immediately available to confirm whether Mangou had left.

One rebel source said divisions between a rebel faction that took over parts of Abidjan last month and the invaders from the north may be holding up the final assault.

But a source inside Ouattara’s camp denied this.

“It’s nothing to do with that … This is taking a little longer than expected because they have to secure gains first.”

France mulls evacuation
The fighting has brought the number of people killed since the post-election violence began in November to more than 1 300 with reports of carnage in the west of the country in which aid organisations said more than 1 000 people were killed.

ONUCI said on Saturday that traditional hunters known as Dozos had joined Ouattara’s forces in killing 330 people in Duekoue, in the west. Ouattara rejected allegations that his forces took part.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said in a conversation late on Saturday with Ouattara he was “concerned and alarmed”.

The International Committee of the Red Cross said on Saturday that at least 800 people were killed in intercommunal violence in Duekoue this week in total.

“It’s been exaggerated,” said Ouattara’s government spokesman Patrick Achi, adding that rebel forces had only found and tallied 152. “Where is the person on the ground who counted these bodies? Where were they buried?”

France said its forces took Abidjan airport to facilitate the evacuation of foreigners and sent an additional 300 troops.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy on Sunday called on French citizens in Abidjan to group together in a protective measure.

Defence Minister Gerard Longuet said evacuation of France’s 12 000 citizens in Côte d’Ivoire was under consideration.

“This is a question which is being asked and which will be settled in the next few hours,” Longuet said on France’s LCI.

In Paris, armed forces spokesperson Colonel Thierry Burkhard said by taking the airport, they had “control over the airspace [which] allows those who wish to leave the country to do so”.

About 1 600 foreigners, of whom about half are French, have taken refuge at a French military camp close to the airport. – Reuters

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