Army chief seeks refuge as noose tightens around Gbagbo
Ivory Coast's army chief, an ally of strongman Laurent Gbagbo, has sought refuge at the home of the South African ambassador as troops loyal to the country’s internationally backed president, Alassane Ouattara, besieged the main city of Abidjan.
In a dramatic turn of events Thursday, forces loyal to Ivory Coast’s internationally recognised president Alassane Ouattara closed in on the main Ivorian city of Abidjan as the country’s army chief of staff, a key ally of Ivorian strongman Laurent Gbagbo, sought asylum at the South African mission in Abidjan.
Rebels fighting to install Ouattara as president have been making rapid advances in the past few days from their bases in northern Ivory Coast. On Wednesday, the capital of Yamoussoukro fell unopposed to rebel forces. The port of San Pedro, a key site in this cocoa-exporting nation, fell shortly thereafter.
The West African nation of Ivory Coast has been gripped by a political crisis for the past four months after Ouattara was internationally recognised as the winner of the November 2010 presidential elections. Longtime Ivorian president Laurent Gbagbo has however failed to concede defeat, leading to a deadly showdown between the two sides that has killed more than 460 people and seen nearly a million people fleeing their homes.
In recent days, the military and diplomatic noose has been tightening around Gbagbo. The latest blow to the Ivorian strongman came when the country’s chief of army staff Gen. Phillippe Mangou, a well-known Gbagbo loyalist, sought refuge at the South African ambassador’s residence in Abidjan.
In an interview with FRANCE 24, South African Foreign Ministry spokesman Clayson Monyela said Gen. Mangou - along with his wife and five children - had sought refuge at the ambassador’s residence Wednesday night.
“We accommodated him and his family on humanitarian grounds,” said Monyela in a phone interview with FRANCE 24 from the South African capital of Pretoria. “He’s still there and currently he is consulting with international bodies including the regional grouping ECOWAS, the African Union and the United Nations on the way forward.”
Ouattara issues call to Gbagbo forces
Shortly after the South African foreign ministry confirmed reports of Mangou’s presence at the ambassadorial residence, Ouattara issued a call to other Gbagbo loyalist fighters to switch sides to prevent further bloodshed in the politically unstable West African nation.
“I call on you to serve your country,” said Ouattara in a statement broadcast on his private television station. “It is time to join your brothers in the Republican Forces."
Ouattara maintained that troops fighting to install him as president were “at the gates” of Abidjan, the economic heart of the country.
Pro-Gbagbo youths have deserted roadblocks
The Ivorian commercial capital was eerily calm Thursday, said FRANCE 24’s Bernard Mark reporting from Abidjan. “Every single store is closed, there isn’t a car on the road…even the roadblocks that we’ve seen over the last few weeks that were set up mostly by pro-Gbagbo youths have been abandoned.”
Abidjan is widely believed to be the site of a likely last stance by Gbagbo’s forces, which would probably centre around the presidential palace in the heart of the city.
As rumours of the Ivorian strongman’s whereabouts circulated across the city, state-controlled RTI TV said Gbagbo was “safe and sound in his home” in Cocody, an up
scale neighbourhood of Abidjan.
But the northern outskirts of the city were coming under attack Thursday, said Mark.
Rebel forces were moving south from the capital of Yamoussoukro toward Abidjan, taking villages along the way, including Gbagbo’s home village of Mama, said the Associated Press, quoting an aide to Ouattara.
Reporting from Abidjan, FRANCE 24’s Mark said the district of Yopougon, a Gbagbo stronghold, was coming under heavy attack by rebels loyal to Ouattara, according to witnesses.
“The fighters attacking Yopougon are pro-Ouattara forces who started the day in Abidjan. They’re going to be joined, according to their leaders, by the main force coming south from Yamoussoukro,” said Mark. “The question now is, will Abidjan fall as quickly as other cities have done, with virtually no resistance.”