Heavy fighting in Ivory Coast over the country's disputed election may augur a return to civil war, the United Nations warned Thursday as clashes raged in Abidjan and in western regions of the country, violence that one side said left 13 people dead.
For the first time since the contested poll last November, the U.N. said, troops loyal to incumbent leader Laurent Gbagbo were attacked by commandos claiming loyalty to his opponent. Previously, Gbagbo's troops had clashed with unarmed protesters loyal to challenger Alassane Ouattara.
"It changes the game," said local U.N. spokesman Hamadoun Toure. "Before it was clashes between police and protesters. Now if it's the beginning of fighting between two armed forces, it could have serious consequences for the country or even the region."
A military spokesman for Ouattara's camp, Capt. Leon Kouakou Alla, said the forces allied with Gbagbo were defending themselves. He said they acted alone, and not under his orders.
"They've been harassed, kidnapped and killed by Gbagbo's men, so they're now defending themselves _ it's normal," he said.
Residents reported automatic arms fire Thursday morning in the Abobo district of Abidjan, the commercial capital, after three days of heavy fighting between police forces loyal to Gbagbo, who refuses to cede power, and a force calling itself the "invisible commandos," believed to include former rebels.
Hundreds of people fled Abobo on Thursday on foot on the main road leading from the neighborhood, some pushing wooden carts, others with their possessions wrapped in sheets. Police sealed off the area and turned back all cars attempting to enter.
Fighting also broke out Thursday morning in the west of the country near the border with Liberia and Guinea, the local United Nations peacekeeping mission reported. This area is particularly sensitive as more than 40,000 internally displaced people are currently in the region, and another 40,000 have fled across the border, according the U.N.
"This is a breach of the cease-fire that has been holding for the last six years," Toure said.
Ouattara's camp says New Forces rebels allied with them came under attack in the country's west by irregular militiamen allied with Gbagbo at 5 a.m. Thursday.
Twelve pro-Gbagbo militiamen were killed, a truck with a machine gun mounted on it was seized, along with ammunition and several Kalashnikovs, said a statement signed by Alla. One person on the New Forces side was killed, the statement said.
The development marks a significant escalation in the country's political crisis that erupted late last year after Gbagbo refused to accept defeat in the presidential election, even though U.N.-certified results showed he had lost the Nov. 28 vote by 9 percentage points to Ouattara, the opposition leader.
With the backing of the army, Gbagbo has stayed in the presidential palace while Ouattara has been in a barricaded hotel. Neighborhoods that voted in large numbers for him, including Abobo, have come under sustained attack by pro-Gbagbo forces, who are accused of killing over 300 people since the vote.
But the balance of power shifted Tuesday, as the "invisible commandos" allied with Ouattara launched their own attack. They claimed in a statement overnight that they killed 27 police officers in an ambush on Tuesday in Abobo.
In addition to the 27 dead security forces, the new group said it had also taken hostage three officers belonging to an elite paramilitary unit, set fire to one armored personnel carrier and had seized three paramilitary vehicles, 32 Kalashnikovs, several machine guns, four rocket-propelled grenades and two cases of grenades.
A military spokesman for the Gbagbo regime described the Tuesday incident as an "ambush by a group of more than fifty rebels."
"Under a deluge of fire, the (police) returned fire courageously," he said in a statement read on state television.
On Thursday a police vehicle was still in flames.
The commandos warned that they would take their battle soon to the downtown neighborhoods of Koumassi, Adjame and Yopougon.
Ouattara's prime minister warned last week that if Gbagbo refuses to stand down, his supporters would rise up in an "Egypt-style" revolution. He said they would be helped by the country's northern rebels, who are politically aligned with Ouattara.