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Opposition takes Paris embassy but call for strike fails

Video by Louise HANNAH


Latest update : 2010-12-27

Most workers in Ivory Coast's main city Abidjan have ignored a call by presidential claimant Alassane Ouattara's (photo) party for a general strike. In Paris, supporters of Ouattara took over the country's embassy.

AFP - Ivory Coast strongman Laurent Gbagbo's battle to cling to power suffered a blow Monday when his Paris embassy fell to his rival Alassane Ouattara, but a threatened general strike was slow to take hold.

Ouattara, who is recognised as president by the international community but is besieged in his Abidjan hotel and protected by UN peacekeepers, had urged workers to down tools across the fragile West African state.

At first, the sprawling commercial capital Abidjan, one of West Africa's biggest ports and the key to the country, was as busy as ever, its streets snarled with traffic jams and its street markets packed with shoppers.

But as the day wore on and Ouattara's supporters began to get the message out, despite being totally excluded from the airwaves, there was disruption to public transport and isolated street barricades began to spring up.

"In Abidjan, the news didn't get out very well. It was only this morning that people saw the print media," said Ouattara spokeswoman Anne Ouloto. "We're still getting reports, but in the interior the strike was followed."

As the working day ended there were very few "gbakas", or commuter minibuses, working in the northern suburbs that voted Ouattara, forcing hundreds of people to walk home from work or pay expensive taxi fares.

Ouattara's camp had a more clear-cut success outside the country.

Supporters occupied the Ivory Coast's embassy in Paris, after the former colonial power said it would recognise Ouattara's choice for ambassador. The previous pro-Gbagbo ambassador had left the premises without resistance.

"This is proof that the Ivorian people are prepared to go as far as it takes to get the new government set up," said Meite Mahmud, a pro-Ouattara embassy employee.

French police deployed in front of the building, but there was no violence, and pro-Gbagbo staff appear to have left shortly before protesters arrived. Ouattara will be sending a new ambassador.

Belgium also said it was recognising a Ouattara nominee as envoy.

In another blow to Gbagbo, the African Union named Kenya's Prime Minister Raila Odinga as its pointman for efforts to resolve the crisis in Ivory Coast.

Odinga has been hawkish on the crisis, and was the first African leader to call for military action against Gbagbo.

Gbagbo's next challenge will be a meeting Tuesday with the presidents of Benin, Cape Verde and Sierra Leone, who will come carrying a message from the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) that he must step down.

There seems little chance of that, however, and Gbagbo has warned that ECOWAS' threat of military action could plunge the region into war and endanger the millions of West African migrants living in Ivory Coast.

"If there is internal disorder, a civil war, there will be dangers, because we will not let our law, our constitution, be trampled on. People should get that idea out of their heads," Gbagbo told the French daily Le Figaro.

"We're not afraid. We are the ones who are attacked. We have the law on our side. How far are those attacking us prepared to go?" he demanded.

Gbagbo branded the threat part of a Western plot directed by France and the United States, whom he accused of undermining Ivorian electoral procedures in order to propel Ouattara into power.

France firmly denied that it was behind any sort of plot, but the foreign ministry confirmed it will recognise Ouattara's ambassador to Paris, and said it had impounded Gbagbo's presidential jet at a French airport.

Despite a decade of crisis, Ivory Coast remains a significant economy. It exports more than a third of the world's supply of cocoa, has a small but promising oil production sector and operates two major ports.

The African Union has also called on Gbagbo to go, leaving him almost totally isolated, with only Angola publicly backing its ally. On Sunday, Washington kept up pressure, renewing its support for ECOWAS.

Gbagbo's forces remain firmly in charge in Abidjan, where they have been accused of carrying out scores of killings in pro-Ouattara areas.

Ouattara's shadow government is under siege in an Abidjan resort, protected by 800 UN peacekeepers, but unable to move beyond the grounds of the Golf Hotel or take charge of the levers of state power.

The United Nations' global head of peacekeeping, Alain Le Roy, visited the hotel on Monday to support his troops and to hold talks with "President-elect Alassane Ouattara", according to a statement from the UNOCI mission.

Le Roy has also asked to meet Gbagbo, but has had no response, it said.

Some 14,000 Ivorians have already fled to neighbouring Liberia amid the post-election violence, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees said Saturday.

Date created : 2010-12-27


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