Forces loyal to Alassane Ouattara, Cote d’Ivoire’s internationally recognised leader, continue to battle loyalists of his rival Laurent Gbagbo in the commercial capital of Abidjan, having seized control of state television overnight.
Heavy fighting raged on Friday in the neighbourhoods close to the presidential palace as well as near Gbagbo’s home and state TV broadcaster, as armed forces loyal to Ouattara tried to install him to power.
Officials in France, which still has ties with its former colony and follows its affairs closely, said Gbagbo was still in the country despite attacks by rival forces, and is probably in the presidential residence.
“We are practically certain that he is in Abidjan in his residence,” one French official who asked not to be named told AFP the news agency.
Residents, locked up in their homes, reported barrages of heavy arms fire punctuated by detonations throughout Thursday night.
The latest fighting claimed a Swedish national working with the UN mission in the country, the UN and a security source said.
A journalist in Abidjan tells Al Jazeera that Gbagbo’s options are limited
The security source said Zahra Abidi was on the balcony of a friend’s house while shooting was going on when a stray bullet hit her.
On the peninsula where the presidential palace is situated, witnesses told the Reuters news agency that buildings were shaking with each explosion.
Patrick Achi, a spokesman for Ouattara, who ordered the country’s borders and the main airport closed to prevent Gbagbo and his allies from fleeing, said the fighters had breached the city limit overnight and were waging battles at the palace and the residence.
Achi said the forces, who are former rebels that fought in the 2002-3 civil war that left Ivory Coast divided, had seized Radio Television Ivoirienne, or RTI, the state broadcaster late on Thursday.
With the television station that Gbagbo has used as a mouthpiece cut off, no news emerged from his camp, which has been hit by a number of high-level defections in the military.
But a Paris-based adviser said his surrender was “out of the question”.
“He has no intention of resigning,” said Toussaint Alain.
Gbagbo has refused to step down since a November election that UN-certified results showed he lost to Ouattara, triggering a standoff that the the UN says has killed hundreds and led to fears of a new civil war.
As his forces massed on the outskirts of the commercial capital Abidjan on Thursday, Ouattara made a final appeal to Gbagbo to step down, and called on the rest of the army to defect.
“I call on you to serve your country […] It is time to join your brothers in the Republican Forces,” Ouattara said in a statement aimed at encouraging members of the security forces still loyal to Gbagbo to defect.
South Africa’s government said that General Phillippe Mangou, Gbagbo’s army chief of staff, had sought refuge at its ambassador’s residence in Abidjan, in one of the biggest blows yet to Gbagbo’s grip on power.
Ouattara’s government has declared an overnight curfew in Abidjan from Thursday through to Sunday, a senior official said.
Marcel Amon Tano, Ouattara’s chief of staff, said the curfew was needed “for security reasons” and would run from 9pm through to 6am each day.
Seyi Rhodes, a journalist in Abidjan, said the fighting in the city had flared up again after a short lull in the afternoon.
“Most of the shooting is happening in an area of the two bridges which link the southern part of the city with the north part,” Rhodes told Al Jazeera, adding that “these [bridges] are vital arteries which the rebels will need to capture in order to take the presidential palace”.
Guillaume Soro, the prime minister of Ouattara’s parallel government, told the Reuters news agency that Gbagbo has just two to three hours left in power.
“Two or three hours and I think it will be finished … the game is over for Gbagbo. It is finished,” Soro said in Yamoussoukro, the country’s official capital, which fell to pro-Ouattara forces on Wednesday.
The UN mission confirmed that the embargo around Hotel du Golf, where Ouattara has been holed up for months has been lifted. The pro-Gbagbo forces that had been surrounding the hotel “just packed up and left” earlier today.
The UN is worried about a vacuum of power and looting that might result in light of dissolution of Gbagbo’s forces and is preparing to deploy soldiers in parts of Abidjan until Ouattara’s forces can take over. UN peacekeepers are continuing their patrols as per normal until then.
French troops deployed
Meanwhile, French forces have also deployed in some parts of Abidjan, local residents said, amid reports that a Frenchman was found dead in a hotel in Yamoussoukro.
One source said soldiers from the 1,000-strong French force had been deployed in Zone 4, in the south of the city.
A Western military source said others were sent to rescue some French nationals being attacked in the Deux Plateaux neighbourhood by youth supporters of Gbagbo. France’s armed forces declined to immediately comment.
The worsening security situation has led to a warning from Amnesty International that civilians in Abidjan are at immediate risk of “massive human rights violations”.
“Abidjan is on the brink of a human rights catastrophe and total chaos,” Salvatore Saguès, Amnesty’s researcher on West Africa, said.
|Ouattara made a final appeal to Gbagbo to step down, and called on the rest of the army to defect [AFP]|
“…The parties to the conflict must immediately stop targeting the civilian population,” Saguès said, adding: “The international community must take immediate steps to protect the civilian population.”
On Friday, the UNHCR called on Ouattara to rein in his forces, citing what it said were unconfirmed reports they had abducted and mistreated civilians.
It also cited sporadic reports of pro-Gbagbo forces killing civilians and reminded both sides that they could be held criminally responsible before the International Criminal Court.
“We’ve had unconfirmed reports of quite serious human rights violations committed by the Forces Republicaines de Cote d’Ivoire, pro-Ouattara forces, particularly in the Guiglo and Daloa area in the west,” Rupert Colville, the UN human rights spokesman, told a news briefing in Geneva.
Ouattara’s forces took several towns near Abidjan, including the cocoa port of San Pedro, overnight, tightening the noose around Gbagbo.
San Pedro is a strategically important town because it ships half the cocoa beans from the world’s top cocoa grower.
The UN Security Council on Wednesday unanimously approved a resolution demanding an immediate end to the escalating violence.
The resolution urges all Ivorian parties to respect the election of Ouattara as president. It condemns Gbagbo’s decision not to accept Ouattara’s election and urged him “to immediately step aside”.
The resolution also slapped a travel ban and asset freeze on Gbagbo, his wife, and three key aides.