A video obtained by The Associated Press on Friday shows how women were gunned down by soldiers backing Ivory Coast's strongman in an incident that has exposed the extent of army abuse and prompted a shockwave of criticism.
The grainy footage was shot by a cameraman working for an opposition television station whose producer gave the AP permission to disseminate the footage. It captures the minutes before the attack Thursday in the troubled Abobo neighborhood where thousands of women took part in an all-women march demanding the departure of Laurent Gbagbo. At least six women were killed.
In the video, which was also posted on YouTube, a set of successive booms is heard as women wave branches in the air in protest. The crowd of hundreds scatters as screaming is heard. Then the cameraman pans over the collapsed bodies of at least four women. The head of one of them has been torn off and people rush to cover it was a piece of cloth. Another who is still alive tries to lift herself up and collapses in her own blood.
It was not immediately possible to show the video to witnesses to check its authenticity, but the images match the accounts of multiple people who were present during the incident.
The spokesman for Ivory Coast's military, Col. Hilaire Gohourou, denied the army was involved. He read a statement on state TV late Friday, calling it a lie spread by the international media. A government spokesman followed with a second denial blaming street battles on "terrorists helped by the logistical and technical assistance of UNOCI (the U.N. peacekeeping mission in Ivory Coast)."
Gbagbo was shown on TV as well in footage from a Thursday meeting with advisers. He looked depleted, with bags under his eyes. And the normally dapper president was visibly unshaven. "People have sought for a long time to dominate Ivory Coast," he said. "I will not allow Ivory Coast to submit ... As for me, I'm hanging in there."
Gbagbo was declared the loser of the Nov. 28 presidential election by his country's electoral commission, a result that was subsequently certified by the United Nations. For three months, the army which remains loyal to the 65-year-old former history teacher have led a campaign of terror against those who voted for Gbagbo's challenger, longtime opposition leader Alassane Ouattara.
In a dangerous escalation of the hostilities, pro-Ouattara neighborhoods have also taken up arms, especially Abobo, a section of which is now off limits to Gbagbo's forces. So far armed combatants allied with him have largely targeted Gbagbo's soldiers, not civilians.
Because Gbagbo's army has shown almost no reserve in opening fire on civilians, women throughout the capital organized marches, believing the soldiers would be too ashamed to shoot at women. Thursday's incident transgressed a long-standing tradition where women intervened in political disputes to end violence, including during the country's independence struggle.
Ouattara, who is holed up inside a hotel under 24-hour U.N. protection, issued a statement calling the incident "barbarity on an unqualifiable scale."
"Indeed, we anticipated everything short of imagining that one could shoot live rounds at unarmed women, all the more with tanks," said Patrick Achi, the spokesman for Ouattara's government.
The United Nations says that at least 365 people have been killed in the three-month-long dispute, though Ouattara's camp said Friday that total was too conservative and should be closer to 1,000. The AP saw and photographed the bodies of more than 50 people at a morgue close to the fighting's epicenter, and has seen documents indicating the city's largest morgues are holding at least 113 bodies.
More than 200,000 people have fled Abobo, the local U.N. peacekeeping mission reported, after a week when Gbagbo's security forces entered the neighborhood and began shelling it with mortars.
Fighting also has broken out in the west, where several battles have taken place between rebels allied with Ouattara and regular soldiers loyal to Gbagbo. The U.N. refugee body announced Friday that it would be suspending its activities in the west because of the security concerns.
Hopes linger for a negotiated solution, even after a high-level African Union panel of five presidents extended its timeline for mediation by a month. Previous attempts to mediate have fallen flat after Gbagbo rejected offers of amnesty, exile and teaching positions in the United States.
The video posted on YouTube is already circulating inside the U.S. State Department, where Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton issued a stinging rebuke calling Gbagbo's desire to stay in office "selfish."
"Gbagbo and his forces have shown a callous disregard for human life and the rule of law, preying on the unarmed and the innocent," she said.
The pixelated video ends with scenes of the chaos in Abobo and repeated frames of women lying motionless, including what appears to be a teenager, her head lying on one side with a sheet of blood seeping beneath her. At one point, the cameraman captures a blue armored truck passing by, with "national police" emblazoned on the side. There is also a pickup truck painted in camouflage with a machine gun mounted on it and at least one more armored personnel carriers passing by the scene of the bloodshed.
In the foreground are dozens of discarded flip-flops that fell off of women's feet as they attempted to flee.
John Heilprin in Geneva, Ahmed Mohamed in Nouakchott, Mauritania and Anita Snow at the United Nations contributed to this report.