Slaughter in Ivory Coast as the Grisly Political Standoff Intensifies

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Jean-Philippe Ksiazek / AFP / Getty Images

Pro-Gbagbo militiamen from the Young Patriots fight with forces loyal to internationally recognized Ivory Coast President Alassane Ouattara, on April 1, 2011 in the Plateau district of Abidjan.

At least 800 people were slaughtered in the western Ivory Coast town of Duekoue on March 29, the International Committee of the Red Cross said, as it became the latest town caught in the spiral of post-electoral violence engulfing the country. Caritas, a Roman Catholic charity, estimated the death toll was 1,000.

Duekoue resident Bonfil Zahe narrowly escaped death that day. Along with six companions, the 62-year-old was stopped at a makeshift checkpoint in the early afternoon. "Three men armed with automatic weapons stopped us. They let me go because I'm an old man. As I started to run, I heard bursts of machine gunfire, three, four or five bursts," Zahe said in a quiet voice.

Fierce fighting has engulfed Duekoue as groups loyal to incumbent Laurent Gbagbo have battled against the Republican Forces, the army that backs his challenger, Alassane Ouattara. Gbagbo has ignored international pressure to cede power after losing the United Nations-certified elections in November.

Duekoue has a bloody history in Ivory Coast's eight-year crisis. Situated near the border with Liberia, the town serves as an entry point for mercenaries from that country's civil war. It lies on the UN-patrolled buffer zone that has divided Ivory Coast since its 2002 civil war. Pro-Gbagbo militias, who rule the lawless area near Duekoue, frequently clash with the New Force rebels who control the northern half of the country. Ouattara made a decree last month officially recognizing the former rebels. The United Nations has repeatedly warned that clashes in the volatile west could re-ignite a civil war, and that both presidential claimants could face trial at the International Criminal Court as allegations of human rights abuses continue to surface.

The Republican Forces seized Duekoue on March 29. A spokesperson for Ouattara's government denied any links between his loyalists and alleged atrocities there. Maho Gloflhei, the leader of the main pro-Gbagbo militant group in Duekoue, said the Republican Forces were responsible for the "slaughter of civilians."

"Most of the deaths were soldiers from both sides of the conflicts. But [pro-Gbagbo] Liberian mercenaries began to kill civilians once they heard the Republican Forces were at the gates. And there have been longstanding problems between the settler and native communities here," another resident, who declined to be named for fear of reprisals, told TIME. Much of Gbagbo's popular support relies on fervent nationalism that both blames the West and targets Ivorians from the country's north who form Ouattara's key support base.

In the south, Republican Forces continue to battle for control of the main city of Abidjan. Pro-Gbagbo forces have recaptured the state-run broadcast outlet, Radio Television Ivorienne (RTI), after days of running gun battles. Broadcast services switched back on April 1 after being off-air for 24 hours. A disheveled presenter announced, "Laurent Gbagbo, the President of the Republic, is at his residence."

"The President of the Republic is at work and continues to watch over those who believe in our country," he said, trying to convince Ivoirians it was business as usual.

But Gbagbo has yet to address the nation. Traffic light signals flash in empty streets as the sound of heavy gunfire echoes across the city. And a fear campaign from RTI further undermines the façade of normality. State television aired looped images of corpses littering the gutted broadcast building, labeling the dead men as foreigners who wanted to "occupy" the country. Meanwhile, all officials, including customs officers and forest rangers, were urged to regroup at strategic points across the city.

In light of alleged planned attacks from the UN and French Licorne forces, a core of fanatic youth loyal to the state were urged to gather on the two bridges that span the lagoon side of the city. They arrived by boat taxis, chanting slogans, and carrying clubs and machetes. The scene had chilling similarities to a gathering in 2004, when Licorne troops opened fire on pro-Gbagbo youth groups after weeks of protests.

"When dealing with a man like Gbagbo backed into a corner, the situation will likely degenerate before it improves," an African diplomat told TIME. "But ultimately calling his armed youth militias can only hurry his departure... . His objective now is about his legacy. He wants to force [French and UN] troops into firing at the crowd to deflect the attention and blame."

A western diplomat said Jean Ping, the head of the African Union, had cancelled plans to visit Abidjan to negotiate an exit for Gbagbo.

"Ouattara very reasonably said there's no point in even talking until Gbagbo has stepped down," the diplomat said. "It's coming close to a point where the French intervening might be a possible solution," the diplomat added.

Meanwhile, a security source said bickering between various pro-Ouattara factions had created an impasse. "Dividing the pie after the victory is clearly going to be a problem. We can only hope it remains a political problem rather than a military one," the high-ranking army official said.