International pressure was mounting Friday on Ivory Coast leader Laurent Gbagbo after his forces launched a deadly crackdown on supporters of a rival claimant on the presidency.
Washington, Paris and the European Union demanded Gbagbo quickly hand over power to his enemy Alassane Ouattara, after a day of armed bloodshed on the streets of Abidjan left between 11 and 30 people dead.
Ouattara’s supporters had threatened to return to streets on Friday to renew an attempt to seize control of state television, but the sprawling seaport was eerily quiet following Thursday’s violent repression.
“People are scared to come out because there were victims yesterday. The fear is still there,” said Moussa Camara, a militant from Ouattara’s RHDP, guarding his party headquarters.
In the Abidjan suburb of Abobo, crowds gathered shortly after dawn around the bodies of two young men, their skulls shattered by bullets, the latest victims in a battle that has left between 11 and 30 dead.
One lay barefoot in his underpants, his head lolling on a congealed trail of blood, the other was spread-eagled by the roadside, his slip-ons shoes cast aside.
It was not clear who had killed them, but on Thursday the district had seen clashes between armed police loyal to Gbagbo and supporters of Ouattara.
At a Brussels meeting of the European Union, France’s President Nicolas Sarkozy said Gbagbo must go “before the end of the week” to avoid being added to a list of Ivorians being targeted by EU visa bans and asset seizures.
The European leaders also urged Ivorian military and civilian leaders to side with “democratically elected” Ouattara.
The Union’s chief diplomat Catherine Ashton piled on the pressure, blaming the violence on Gbagbo’s camp — those “who prevent a rapid and peaceful transfer of powers to the president-elect Alassane Ouattara.”
The UN Security Council warned Thursday that anyone who attacks civilians will face action under international humanitarian law, and a senior US official predicted that Gbagbo would soon back down.
“He’s got a decision to make and he’s got a limited amount of time to make it,” the Washington official told reporters on condition of anonymity.
Gbagbo’s loyal state media and some of his lieutenants remain defiant, making wild claims that France and UN peacekeepers are arming pro-Ouattara northern rebel fighters in preparation for a “genocide”.
But the veteran leader has himself been more discreet, and on Friday he was due to meet African Union envoy Jean Ping, who arrived in Abidjan seeking to mediate a peaceful solution to the crisis.
The African Union has also recognised Ouattara, but has sought to negotiate a solution, despite the anger of some members. Kenyan Prime Minister Raila Odinga went so far as to call for Gbagbo to be ousted by military force.
Both Gbagbo and Ouattara claim to have won last month’s disputed election, and both have declared themselves president. Ouattara has the support of the international community, but Gbagbo is backed by the Ivorian army and police.
On Thursday, Ouattara made his move, calling on his supporters to march on the seat of RTI state television, the only local channel allowed to broadcast and a reliable propaganda tool of the incumbent Gbagbo regime.
They were met with gunfire and tear gas, as street battles erupted across the city. Amnesty International counted nine unarmed protesters shot dead by security forces, the government said 10 of its own men were killed.
Ouattara’s choice for prime minister, Guillaume Soro, tried to break out of the luxury hotel where his government is holed up, protected by an 800-strong force of UN peacekeepers, but his former rebel fighters were repulsed.
At least two members of Soro’s former rebel New Forces (FN) were killed as they tried to leave the Golf Hotel and head for RTI, in a fierce gun battle that saw the nearby US embassy hit by a stray rocket-propelled grenade.
Nevertheless, the Ouattara camp vowed to try again Friday, calling on its supporters to march once more on RTI and also on the prime minister’s offices in the heavily-defended downtown Plateau district.
Soro urged a “peaceful combat for a democratic Ivory Coast.”
But the task appeared impossible. The station was under massive armed guard, surrounded by a cordon of tanks, and the waterfront Golf Hotel was entirely surrounded by pro-Gbagbo forces, a tank barrel pointed at its walls.
UN peacekeeping troops there appeared calm, relaxing on chairs alongside a large cordon of armoured vehicles.
There were no buses and few taxis in the pro-Ouattara city districts that were at the centre of Thursday’s violence, and no sign on the quiet streets that another protest was imminent.
“We’ve see a big police and military presence at the flashpoints,” said pro-Ouattara militant Moussa Toure. “We’re just digging in in our party headquarters and waiting for new instructions.”
Ivory Coast 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 government security forces.