Civilians Die as Ivory Coast Braces for a Defeated President's Last Stand

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Emanuel Ekra / AP

Youths supporting incumbent President Laurent Gbagbo receive military-style training in Abidjan, Ivory Coast

At least 52 civilians have been killed in the past week amid escalating violence instigated by an authoritarian President who refuses to heed the will of his people. No, not in Libya, or Yemen, or Bahrain, but in the West African nation of Ivory Coast, which is struggling for media attention amid crises elsewhere.

"Ivory Coast isn't considered strategically important enough on the global stage — it is not a Libya, so to speak," one Western diplomat points out. "And that, quite simply, is why it hasn't got the attention it deserves from the international community."

The erstwhile beacon of prosperity and stability in West Africa has been held hostage for five months by incumbent President Laurent Gbagbo, who has refused to cede power after losing a November runoff presidential election. Instead, he has mobilized the state apparatus and a fanatical core of young militants against the citizens who voted for his challenger, Alassane Ouattara. Daily battles rage between a burgeoning pro-Ouattara insurgency in Abidjan known as the "invisible commandos," and the army, which backs Gbagbo. At least 460 deaths have been confirmed since mid-December, according to the U.N. mission there, known as ONUCI.

And the violence threatens to escalate as Gbagbo has urged his young backers to join the army en masse. In the main city of Abidjan, some 15,000 youths, mostly unemployed and illiterate, gathered at the army headquarters on March 22. "I'm prepared to defend my country, which is under attack from foreigners," unemployed 17-year-old Venance Kouakou, who rushed to sign up, told TIME. Foreigners, he added, were all those who "voted against Gbagbo, the true President."

Later, a group of youths marching through Abidjan's once clean, palm-lined streets, chanted loudly, "With our Kalashs, we will target the enemy!" Gbagbo's popularity has long centered on xenophobic rhetoric against migrants from other African countries. Ivorians from the north of the country — where Ouattara has popular support — are considered foreigners by Gbagbo's supporters because many have migrant roots, giving the threat of violence a distinctly xenophobic character.

Although the recruitment gathering is seen by most as a show of power rather than a real moment of enlistment, it has pushed more people than ever to flee the main city of Abidjan for fear of a pogrom. The postelection crisis has already prompted nearly half a million to flee across the country.

"They haven't given the youths guns or money yet, but they have empowered them with immunity," says 39-year-old Mafe Kone, a Malian-born businessman in Ivory Coast. "They're swaggering around the neighborhood waiting for any excuse to fight you because you're from Burkina Faso, Mali or Senegal."

The week before, after six hours of shooting in his pro-Gbagbo neighborhood of Youpougon, Kone sent his heavily pregnant wife to Mali for the first time in her life — an 11-hour drive along potholed roads.

There have been other targets. State television, still under Gbagbo's grip, has run a long campaign aimed toward discrediting ONUCI — including allegations the international body is transporting mercenaries and weapons into the country.

To a population weary from five months of gun battles, the continuing standoff has dimmed hopes that the international community will intervene. Having watched first Egypt then Libya take center stage in the global limelight, both pro-Ouattara and independent newspapers have begun to bitterly invoke memories of the Rwandan genocide in 1994. Back then, an international intervention to stop the wars in the Balkans diverted attention from the unfolding state-sponsored massacres that eventually claimed an estimated 800,000 in the central African country.

"There will not be the tragedies of Sierra Leone, Rwanda or Liberia in Ivory Coast. I guarantee that — not under my watch. They will not take place," ONUCI mission chief Choi Young Jin tells TIME. He heads a U.N. mission that includes 9,000 peacekeeping troops, and is expecting a further 2,000 reinforcements.

He says any attempts by Gbagbo's camp to use an Mi-24 attack helicopter — believed to be under assembly, in defiance of an arms embargo — would be "neutralized."

"I warned Gbagbo's camp, in the strongest possible terms, Don't even try it," Choi adds.

There's no mistaking an iron will in the apparently unassuming former South Korean diplomat, but the organization nevertheless faces an uphill battle. Unlike in Rwanda, ONUCI is not mandated to launch offensives to defend civilians in Ivory Coast, earning it increasing criticism as the death toll rises daily.

Ouattara's camp has urged the Security Council to authorize the immediate use of force to remove Gbagbo, who, it says, has begun dishing out arms to youths as young as 15. "Given that the situation continues to degenerate, the government has once again asked for full implementation of ONUCI mandate ... which is to protect civilian populations and coordinate humanitarian assistance," the Ouattara government said in a March 21 statement.

But Choi insists ONUCI has carried out its mandate to the best of its abilities — curbing the overall number of deaths, even as indiscriminate shelling by the army killed 25 on March 17. "We are here to prevent massive civilian massacres, the kind that would require sophisticated forces."

"There are tens thousands of families in each commune. We cannot prevent [every death]," Choi says.

Still, Ivorians are bracing for the worst. On March 17, Ouattara — who is internationally recognized as the legitimate President — issued a decree that former rebel fighters of the New Forces, who have controlled the northern half of the country since the outbreak of a 2002 civil war, would now form part of the national army. Observers say the move was aimed at urging defections within the army.

Another Western diplomat says the decree gave Ouattara an army that the international community would recognize. "What we're looking at is a transition, but whether it will be quick and violent, long and drawn out with military conflict on both sides or peaceful is impossible to predict. It's hard to read all the indicators at the moment," the diplomat says.

"Sleeper units of the New Forces or the invisible commandos could be waiting to strike in Abidjan, or there could be some kind of collapse within the army," the diplomat adds.

With his last remaining unofficial allies — Angola and South Africa — on March 23 declaring support for Ouattara, many believe that a last, bloody stand by Gbagbo may be imminent.