ABIDJAN (Reuters) – Soldiers backing Alassane Ouattara met stiff resistance from incumbent Laurent Gbagbo’s fighters in Ivory Coast’s main city of Abidjan on Saturday as the two sides fought for control of the West African country.
There was fighting around the Presidential Palace, state broadcaster RTI and military bases between forces loyal to the two presidential rivals, and a Reuters reporter heard gunfire and explosions from heavy shelling near the palace throughout the morning.
In a sign of how bloody the conflict has become, theInternational Committee of the Red Cross said at least 800 people were killed in intercommunal violence in the western Ivorian town of Duekoue this week.
That would bring the confirmed death toll from violence since the presidential election, in which Ouattara was the internationally recognized winner, to 1,300 people.
The actual toll is likely to be much higher because the fighting has been so heavy and because Gbagbo’s forces rarely disclose their own losses or civilians they kill.
Gunbattles and the sounds of heavy weapons fire rang out across Abidjan as the country’s former rebels pressed an offensive to oust Gbagbo, who has refused to concede power.
Residents said they heard loud explosions near Agban base, the city’s largest, in the Adjame neighborhood near Cocody where Gbagbo has his official residence.
“Mortar fire has been heard since late last night around the gendarmerie. It is very loud and we’re taking shelter in our homes,” said Jules Konin, who lives nearby.
“The gendarmes from the camp are fighting the insurgents,” said another resident, Adi Saba.
Pro-Gbagbo forces retained control of state broadcaster RTI, which came back on air late on Friday after heavy fighting took it down, showing pro-Gbagbo rallies and file footage of his swearing in ceremony after the contested November election.
An army officer shown surrounded by his troops announced over RTI on Saturday morning that all members of Gbagbo’s security forces should mobilize to counter the offensive by Ouattara’s soldiers.
The military “calls on all members of the national army, the gendarmerie, the national police, border patrol, and navy to join up with the following units,” he said before listing bases around Abidjan.
A flashing scroll said Gbagbo’s youth leader Charles Ble Goude would give an order soon.
The army handed out weapons to hundreds in the group this week and they have killed a number of civilians, particularly West African immigrants whom state TV blames for the rebellion.
Gbagbo, who has refused to quit after a November 28 election that U.N.-certified results showed he lost, has been hit by a number of high-level defections in the military since pro-Ouattara forces marched on Abidjan, but his camp says he remains in Ivory Coast and will not surrender.
Ouattara’s government spokesman Patrick Achi told Reuters by phone that Gbagbo’s fall nonetheless was imminent.
“I’m not worried at all. Where is he going to go? He doesn’t control the army or the gendarmerie. They will be exhausted. They are running out of ammunition,” Achi said.
“Where can they go from here? All their generals have surrendered. They aren’t much of a force.”
The African Union, former colonial ruler France, the United States, and U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon all have called on Gbagbo to step down immediately.
Forces supporting Ouattara, recognized as winner of the November election by African nations and Western powers, marched into Abidjan on Thursday after a swift push south that initially met with little formal resistance.
But they now face Gbagbo’s most reliable fighters, the roughly 2,500-strong elite Republican Guard, clustered in Abidjan along with remaining regular army troops.
The power struggle in the world’s top cocoa grower pushed cocoa prices higher in recent weeks, but they have tumbled since on expectations exports will soon be freed up.
Ivory Coast’s $2.3 billion 2032 bond, on which it defaulted in January, extended gains on Friday, rising more than 3 points to a 3-1/2-month high.
(Additional reporting by Tim Cocks and Abidjan and Emma Thomasson in Geneva; Writing by Richard Valdmanis; Editing by Michael Roddy)
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