Fighters loyal to Ivory Coast’s President-elect Alassane Ouattara, 69, are fighting to take over the state-run broadcaster in the commercial capital, Abidjan, as they look to oust incumbent leader Laurent Gbagbo.
Heavy artillery and explosions were heard around the Radio Television Ivorienne, which skipped its usual 8 p.m. news bulletin.
“Ouattara’s troops are trying to take the state television building and there are youth around the RTI who are firing back,” Jean-Paul Turin, who saw the clashes from his apartment, said by phone.
Ouattara’s Prime Minister Guillaume Soro will enter Abidjan with the so-called Republican Forces tonight after an ultimatum for Gbagbo to quit lapsed at 7 p.m. local time, Alain Lobognon, an adviser to Soro, said by phone. Meanwhile, the head of Gbagbo’s army, General Phillipe Mangou, sought refuge at the residence of the South African ambassador, according to the Pretoria-based Foreign Ministry said.
In another blow to Gbagbo, General Edouard Tiape Kassarate, head of the military police, defected to Ouattara’s administration at its headquarters in the Golf Hotel in Abidjan, Lobognon said. The loyalty of the armed forces had enabled Gbagbo to defy international isolation and hold onto power since disputing his loss in Nov. 28 elections.
“I’m not sure Gbagbo is in control any longer,” said Rinaldo Depagne, a Dakar-based analyst for International Crisis Group. “The first step for a peaceful outcome is Gbagbo coming and saying I quit.”
The assault on the state television station comes after a week in which the Republican Forces have advanced south, meeting little resistance from the Ivorian army. Ouattara’s forces captured San Pedro, one of two major cocoa-exporting ports, and Yamoussoukro, the political capital, in the past two days, raising hopes that a four-month political crisis may soon be over.
Cocoa for May delivery slumped to an 11-week low on hopes for a quick resumption in exports. The price dropped $35, or 1.2 percent, to $2,952 per metric ton as of 4:36 p.m. in New York.
Ivory Coast’s defaulted dollar-denominated bond rallied 9.9 percent to 47.375 cents on the dollar as of 8:38 p.m. in Abidjan, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. It has gained 21.8 percent since March 22.
United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called on Gbagbo to step down and hand over power to Ouattara. The UN peacekeeping mission in Ivory Coast wouldn’t use force to help resolve the political impasse, he told reporters in Nairobi, Kenya, today.
Ouattara called for soldiers loyal to Gbagbo to lay down their arms.
“I ask you to put yourself in the hands of your country and rejoin legality,” said Ouattara, in a video of a speech distributed by his staff. “Your country calls you.”
Soldiers remain near the presidential palace in Abidjan and Gbagbo’s residence, Agence France-Presse reported, citing Choi Young-Jin, head of the UN mission in the West African country. A blockade of the Golf Hotel, where Ouattara has been holed up under the protection of the UN, has been lifted, AFP said. UN troops have now taken control of Abidjan’s airport, the news service said.
French forces stationed in Abidjan are patrolling the city to prevent “gangs of thugs” from taking advantage of a “security vacuum” to loot, French military spokesman Thierry Burkhard said in a phone interview.
“Abidjan is on the brink of a human rights catastrophe and total chaos,” Salvatore Sagues, a West Africa researcher for London-based Amnesty International, said in an e-mailed statement. “The international community must take immediate steps to protect the civilian population.”
Retreating Liberian mercenaries committed arbitrary executions and looted towns, especially around the western town of Guiglo, the UN said in an e-mailed statement.
Gbagbo has “hours to leave power peacefully”, Soro said this morning, ruling out the possibility of negotiations or a cease-fire. “If he doesn’t cede power now the forces will march on Abidjan and obviously it’ll be victor’s law then,” Soro said in an interview with Paris-based Radio France Internationale today.
Soro, in the company of rebel leaders, spoke to a crowd of thousands in Yamoussoukro at 4:30 p.m. local time, asking them if they wanted the rebels to march on Abidjan, Bernard N’Guessan, a resident, said. The crowd cheered and shouted “yes,” he said.
The UN Security Council voted 15-0 yesterday to freeze Gbagbo’s foreign assets and bar travel by him, his wife Simone, and top aides Desire Tagro, Alcide Djedje and Pascal Affi N’Guessan.
Ivory Coast “has reached the boiling point,” said Daniel Bekele, Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “We are extremely concerned about the potential for further human rights atrocities, given the killings by both sides and the continued incitement to violence through the media by Gbagbo cronies.”
Two UN helicopters today circled above the Golf Hotel, Ouattara’s headquarters.
Gbagbo still has “an opportunity to step aside and avoid bloodshed,” Johnnie Carson, the U.S. assistant secretary of state for African affairs, told reporters in Washington. If he doesn’t he will be held accountable for violence in the city, he said.
“The civilian population, whatever their ethnicity, whatever their religion, has absolutely nothing to fear” from the Republican Forces taking control of Abidjan, Soro said.
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