Ivory Coast Fighting Moves In on Defeated President

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Issouf Sanogo / AFP / Getty Images

The aftermath of a rampage by troops loyal to Ivory Coast strongman Laurent Gbagbo against supporters of his presidential rival, Alassane Ouattara, in Abobo, a suburb north of Abidjan, on March 13.

Around dawn on Monday, residents in the Youpougon district of Abidjan, the main town in Ivory Coast, believed that the much-feared civil war really had started when they awoke to the boom of weapons and machine-gun fire. "The noise went on forever," says a 40-year-old resident, who asked to remain anonymous for his safety. "The whole building was shuddering."

Ivory Coast has been rocked by months of postelectoral turmoil after President Laurent Gbagbo refused to step down despite losing to Alassane Ouattara in the November vote. The southwestern suburb of Youpougon houses the residence of the country's army chief of staff — who remains loyal to Gbagbo — and on Monday, fighting was heaviest around there. About the same time, a base camp of youth groups loyal to Gbagbo also came under attack. "The death toll is literally in the dozens. I challenge anyone to come and look at the wreck of the camp this morning and tell me a single person survived the attack," says Tea Kambou, a resident on a neighboring street.

State television, tightly controlled by Gbagbo, has denied that any fighting took place around the army chief's compound. But residents say Monday's fighting marks a sharp escalation in the months-long battle between Gbagbo and Ouattara, the internationally recognized President-elect. Observers have warned that the postelectoral dispute threatens to reignite a 2002 civil war. With Gbagbo ignoring the latest deadline set by the African Union (AU) on March 11 — the fourth time a high-level AU delegation has visited Ivory Coast since the polls — his obstinacy may boost a burgeoning insurgency loyal to his opponent.

The insurgents call themselves the invisible commandos, and their identity has yet to be fully confirmed. Monday's battles are the first time they have pushed out of the northern suburb of Abobo, where at least 400 have died in the crossfire, according to the United Nations. The quarter's streets are spookily deserted after almost all its 200,000 residents fled. On the night of March 13, fighting was reported in the neighborhood of Adjame, a 2.5-mile swath of suburb linking Abobo and Youpougon. This points to a huge insurgent advance southward, bringing the combat within significant range of the presidential palace where Gbagbo has hunkered down for months.

And the violence hasn't been contained to Abidjan. New Force rebel soldiers, who launched the 2002 civil war against Gbagbo that divided the country, have marched on a southward offensive. Prior to the November polls, government services had begun to resume in the northern territory under the New Force's control, and the group said it had disarmed. But on the afternoon of March 13, the town of Doke, along the Liberian border, became the fourth to fall to the rebels. "I left my fruit stall and ran home as soon as I heard gunfire," says market vendor Sia Ssatdou, 22, in Doke. "I thought, Thank God my family has already moved to Liberia."

Ssatdou's family are among the nearly 100,000 people who have flooded the neighboring country, according to the U.N., which is bracing for 150,000 refugees. Across Ivory Coast, some 400,000 have been displaced. Liberian mercenaries fighting on both sides — although primarily for Gbagbo, according to the U.N. and aid groups — are known to enter Ivory Coast using the heavily forested area around Doke. The small dust-road town also lies only a few miles from the strategically important town of Blolequin, which is heavily guarded by forces loyal to Gbagbo.

Despite the renewed conflict, U.N. mission chief Young-jin Choi said on Monday that there were "promising signs which herald the beginning of the end" and pointed to the increasing desperation in the tactics of pro-Gbagbo fighters and to E.U. and U.S. sanctions that have brought the economy to a near standstill, putting increasing pressure on Gbagbo to step down.

Relations between the incumbent and the U.N. have soured sharply in recent months. Last week, Gbagbo announced a ban on U.N. military aircraft, just as the organization was preparing to return Ouattara from an AU summit in Ethiopia. Pro-Gbagbo youth groups have been attacking U.N. workers, abducting staff and ransacking and torching U.N. vehicles. The body's once ubiquitous white four-wheel-drives are rarely seen around Abidjan these days. And they are unlikely to make a comeback anytime soon, after a U.N. staffer was beaten in front of his torched vehicle in the upmarket Cocody suburb on Sunday. The organization warned last week that it is collecting evidence of such acts, which it says constitute "war crimes."

As the violence all around them escalates, Ivorians can only hope that things won't have to get worse before they get better.