Ouattara forces fighting for Gbagbo residence

Reuters News
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Posted: Apr 01, 2011 4:04 AM
Ouattara forces fighting for Gbagbo residence

By Loucoumane Coulibaly and Tim Cocks

ABIDJAN (Reuters) - Presidential claimant Alassane Ouattara's forces battled loyalists of incumbent Laurent Gbagbo on Friday after attacking his Abidjan residence and seizing control of Ivory Coast's state television, a Ouattara spokesman said.

A military source in Gbagbo's camp confirmed the attack overnight on Gbagbo's residence but said that pro-Gbagbo forces were still putting up resistance at state broadcaster, RTI. Residents in the area confirmed heavy fighting.

Loyalists of the internationally recognized president entered the city on Thursday after a swift offensive south aimed at ousting Gbagbo, who has refused to cede power since a November 28 election that U.N.-certified results showed he lost.

Fighting between the rival factions raged for hours on Thursday and heavy weapons fire rang out in the center of the commercial capital of the world's top cocoa producer.

"The shooting is so loud that the earth is shaking due to the explosions," a resident told Reuters by telephone overnight from an area near the fighting.

"Fighting is still going on all around Gbagbo's residence," Ouattara spokesman Patrick Achi told Reuters, hours after he said pro-Ouattara forces attacked.

Achi said he didn't know if Gbagbo was still inside but overnight he said Gbagbo was there and looked like fighting on. "(Gbagbo) hasn't shown any signs of giving up. I don't think he will see the game is up, because he really believes God will save him," he added.

A military source in Gbagbo's camp confirmed the attack, adding that Gbagbo's bodyguards were fighting back.

Residents said the state broadcaster remained off air. It stopped transmitting at 2245 GMT on Thursday after repeatedly showing images of Gbagbo and his close entourage. Gbagbo has been due to speak on state media for days.

"(State broadcaster) RTI is taken, it's off air. It is under control," Achi said, adding a statement would be made later.

The military source, who asked not to be named, confirmed that the gendarmerie had abandoned their positions but said pro-Gbagbo Republican Guard and armed students were still fighting to defend the state broadcaster early on Friday.

The state television building is close to Gbagbo's residence in the leafy neighborhood of Cocody.

STANDOFF KILLED HUNDREDS

In power since 2000, Gbagbo's mandate ran out in 2005 but the presidential election was delayed until 2010 because of instability in the country.

A Sorbonne-educated history professor who prides himself on being in touch with ordinary Ivorians, he rose to prominence as firebrand lecturer who challenged the autocratic rule of Ivory Coast's first post-independence president.

The four month standoff has killed hundreds and rekindled the country's 2002-3 civil war. About 1 million have fled Abidjan alone and some 112,000 other have crossed into Liberia, to the west, according to the United Nations.

Earlier this week, Ouattara's forces advanced from several directions, taking the capital Yamoussoukro and the cocoa port of San Pedro with little resistance.

Some of Gbagbo's top officers, including the head of his armed forces and gendarmerie, have abandoned him but an unknown number appear to be putting up stiff resistance and Ouattara's forces could get sucked into bloody urban warfare with his hard-core supporters, some of whom are recently armed civilians.

The power struggle had pushed cocoa prices higher, but they have tumbled since Ouattara, a former prime minister who later joined the IMF and rose to be its deputy head, began his push.

The capture of San Pedro, which ships half of the country's production, could kick-start the flow of beans that dried up in January due to sanctions, but diplomats said any easing of EU measures would take days.

Ouattara's camp has rejected appeals by Gbagbo's camp for a ceasefire or further dialogue.

U.N. troops were in control of Abidjan airport after Gbagbo forces abandoned it, a security source and U.N. sources said.

An internal U.N. report, seen by Reuters, also said pro-Gbagbo forces had abandoned a blockade of a hotel Ouattara had been restricted to. It also said peacekeepers had exchanged fire with Gbagbo loyalists in several parts of the city.

The U.S. government said Gbagbo had been "significantly" weakened by defections and the disintegration of his forces and Ouattara called on the remaining Gbago loyalists to give up.

He also announced a three-day overnight curfew and ordered the closure of land, air and sea borders, an Interior Ministry statement said. There were widespread reports of looting.

At least 494 people have been confirmed killed since the standoff began, according to the United Nations, but, given the scale of fighting, the real figure is likely to be much higher.

(Additional reporting by Ange Aboa in Abidjan; Additional reporting and writing by David Lewis; Editing by Elizabeth Fullerton)