Gun battles erupt in Ivorian city

Three soldiers killed as heavy gunfire and explosions rock Abidjan, while African Union tries to end political impasse.

    Army official said three soldiers were confirmed killed in the clashes, but thought there were up to five dead [Reuters]

    A series of explosions and gunfire have rocked the main city of Abidjan that supports Ivorian presidential claimant Alassane Ouattara, with protesters calling on his rival to step down. At least three soldiers were killed in the clashes.

    The fighting had continued in Abobo, residents and the military said on Wednesday, while African presidents met with
    Ouattara on a trip aiming to end his violent post-election power struggle with incumbent Laurent Gbagbo.

    The election that was meant to heal the wounds of a 2002-3 civil war and years of economic stagnation since, looks increasingly likely to reignite the conflict.

    A day earlier the delegation - the presidents of South Africa, Chad, Mauritania and Tanzania - met Gbagbo, who has
    defied international sanctions and pressure to yield to the results of a November 28 poll that showed he lost to Ouattara.

    'Everyone is terrified'

    The military that supports Gbagbo has crushed dissent in a series of bloody crackdowns, but military officials say they
    have been provoked because some Ouattara supporters are armed.

    "Since this morning, there has been constant shooting between the military and the people here," said Sephora Konate, an Abobo market trader, who added that she heard explosions and machine gun fire.

    Later in the night, the violence had calmed.

    "Everyone is terrified. Children are crying but there's nothing we can say to comfort them," said Konate.

    A commander at army headquarters who could not be named said three soldiers were confirmed killed in the clashes, but thought there were up to five dead. The military rarely gives civilian casualties, but previous clampdowns have left a trail of dead.

    More than 300 people have been killed since the poll and the turmoil has driven cocoa futures to their highest level in more than three decades. 

    Cote d'Ivoire is the world's biggest cocoa producer, and a spokesman for Ouattara said he would extend the ban he had
    ordered on cocoa exports to March 15.

    Zuma mobbed

    Before Tuesday's meeting with Ouattara in the Golf Hotel, where he is besieged by Ivorian troops, South African President Jacob Zuma was mobbed by angry pro-Ouattara youths.

    Chanting "Zuma, Zuma, tell the truth", the protesters surrounded the car Zuma was travelling in and armed police had to intervene to push the youths back, South Africa's SABC radio news reported.

    Zuma is visiting the country as part of African Union efforts to solve the four-month-long political impasse in the country.

    Zuma was mobbed by angry supporters of Cote d'Ivoire's internationally-recognised president Ouattara [AFP]

    West Africa's regional body ECOWAS had said it would not come as planned due to threats by Gbagbo supporters, though James Victor Gbeho, the ECOWAS commission chief, later arrived. Such threats kept Burkina Faso President Blaise Compaore from coming.

    A source close to the talks said the panel would make no public statement until everyone has left.

    At least six people trying to protest against Gbagbo were killed by the security forces on Monday, witnesses said.

    Ouattara's camp said the toll was double that, including three of his supporters killed by a rocket-propelled grenade.

    In a further sign that Gbagbo is digging in, and with February salaries due soon, his government said it would open
    two nationalised French banks later this week.

    Gbagbo's camp has earmarked the Ivorian branches of Societe Generale and BNP Paribas, two of many foreign banks to have suspended operations, for nationalisation.

    "The government will take all measures necessary to put these banks back to work," Bernadin Yapi, Gbagbo's inspector general of finance, said. "This will show the whole world that the state can take its responsibilities."

    SOURCE: Agencies


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