Ivory Coast battle intensifies as Gbagbo forces hit rival's HQ
Published 10/04/2011 | 05:00
Forces loyal to Ivory Coast strongman Laurent Gbagbo have made advances in the main city of Abidjan, even though their leader is holed up in a bunker within his luxury residence.
The gains are another sign of Mr Gbagbo's defiance -- and his legendary cunning -- after he had appeared on the verge of surrender early last week. On Tuesday, three of his generals requested talks, a plea taken as a sign that the 65-year-old was ready to stand down.
In response, fighters supporting Alassane Ouattara, who won the November election but has been prevented from taking power by Mr Gbagbo, halted their attacks in the city after sweeping down from the north.
However, just when the ultimately futile discussions were taking place, Mr Gbagbo's forces were reinforcing their positions and retaking territory.
"We understand that since that time (Tuesday), the forces of Mr Gbagbo ... have regained terrain and they have full control of the Plateau and Cocody area," said the UN's peacekeeping chief, Alain Le Roy, referring to the plush districts of Abidjan, where Mr Gbagbo is holed up and where most diplomats live.
Mr Le Roy said heavy weapons had been transferred to Cocody on Friday last, reinforcing Mr Gbagbo's arsenal, which includes tanks, rocket launchers and armoured personnel carriers. The statement cast doubt on the claim by Mr Ouattara that his forces had enforced a blockade around Mr Gbagbo's residence.
The UN said Mr Gbagbo's fighters were moving towards the Golf Hotel, where Mr Ouattara has been based since the November poll, under guard from UN peacekeepers. France, the former colonial ruler, also accused Mr Gbagbo's troops of firing on the French ambassador's residence. There were also reports last night that the Golf Hotel had come under mortar attack. by forces loyal to Mr Gbagbo
Separately, a French helicopter mission to rescue foreign diplomats in Cocody yesterday morning drew fire, causing the operation to be cancelled. Commander Frederic Dagillon, a French military spokesman, said an armoured vehicle that had fired on French helicopters had been destroyed.
In a further sign of the resilience of Mr Gbagbo, who has ruled since 2000 after repeatedly postponing elections, his RTI television station came back on air for the first time since the fighting started, broadcasting an appeal for support.
The fear and uncertainty gripping Abidjan amid the political chaos has caused an exodus. Immigrants -- many of them French or Lebanese -- are scrambling to escape as the country implodes.
Few Ivorians are so lucky: about 1,000 are gathered outside the French military base for so-called "passive protection". Inside the French base, an Ivorian girl attacked with a machete and an Ivorian woman who was forced to lie down while a gang stamped on her face and hands were receiving treatment.
Otherwise, the base has been turned into a refugee camp for largely middle-class expatriates. Many had been enjoying an enviable lifestyle in wealthy suburbs of the one-time "Paris of Africa" before terror came to their doorsteps.
The French military says around 3,500 people have passed through the camp so far, with an estimated 1,500 currently sleeping in rudimentary military barracks there.
Several hundred a day are evacuated on small planes from the nearby international airport, also under French military control. On Friday last, 800 Lebanese people left on a series of jets. Air France became the first commercial airline to resume flying in and out of Abidjan yesterday, accelerating the process.
A 26-year-old German, who did not wish to be named, told how she and her daughter were rescued from a furious crowd by the French army.
"We spent two days locked in our home," she said. "We were on the internet, calling everyone we could think of for help. There were big explosions outside and we didn't sleep for those two nights.
"A mob of a thousand people came storming down the street. They were all over the place, smashing boxes, breaking into shops and looting."
Around 1,000 hardcore fighters, including youth militias, are still under Mr Gbagbo's command, but he is suspected of arming civilians.
Long-time Ivory Coast watchers believe that the former history professor, who is regarded as a master politician and strategist may only leave power if he is in handcuffs or is killed.
His resurgence caps a bad few days for Mr Ouattara, a former IMF director, after his forces, made up mainly of former rebels, were accused of massacring civilians in western Ivory Coast during their march towards Abidjan.