Ivory Coast’s rival camps held their positions Sunday night after three days of intense fighting in Abidjan. The UN took advantage of the lull to relocate its staff and France was mulling an evacuation of its nationals, who were told to assemble.
REUTERS - Fighters loyal to Ivory Coast presidential rivals Laurent Gbagbo and Alassane Ouattara held onto positions around Abidjan on Sunday, a day that saw less fighting than the previous three.
Following the three days of pitched battles, Reuters correspondents and witnesses said the main city in the world's top cocoa-growing nation was relatively calm but tense, with sporadic gunfire and explosions heard in some neighbourhoods.
Military forces gear for final showdown
Forces loyal to presidential claimant Ouattara are battling to forcefully remove Gbagbo, who has refused to step down after a disputed poll that rekindled a civil war it was meant to end.
"There has been no fighting here. We are awaiting the resumption of hostilities at any time and we are prepared to defend ourselves and maintain control of Abidjan by all means," a pro-Gbagbo officer at the presidential palace told Reuters.
"Taking Abidjan will be tough, no one should think that we will easily abandon our positions. We are determined to go through to the end," he said.
A Western diplomat said an attack had been planned on Saturday on the presidential residence by forces backing Ouattara, but it didn't happen, possibly because of the human shield of Gbagbo's youth supporters around it.
The diplomat said explosions were heard from the direction of the state TV channel RTI, where a see-saw battle has been waged. Pro-Gbagbo forces said they took it back on Friday.
The television has been broadcasting virulent anti-U.N. and anti-French messages and calls to Gbagbo supporters to join the fight, but the French-based Reporters without Borders said RTI could be broadcasting from a villa or mobile truck in Abidjan because its broadcasting centre is severely damaged.
"This war is about what it means to be Ivorian"
There has been no sign of Gbagbo. State TV has said he is in his residence, but has produced no speech by him, just shots of him drinking tea, but which may be old.
The relative lull in fighting allowed residents to venture out for food or water. Some went to church.
Meanwhile the United Nations mission in Ivory Coast (UNOCI) said it had relocated 200 staff to the north of the country after they came under attack.
After swiftly taking control of the interior, pro-Ouattara forces have met fierce resistance over the past three days in Abidjan where Gbagbo's troops hold on to positions around the presidential palace, Gbagbo's residence, and state television.
Initially suffering heavy defeats and defections among the top ranks in his army, Gbagbo counts about 3,000 republican guards, some loyal soldiers and his youth wing, the Young Patriots, who have responded to calls to form a human chain around the presidential palace and Gbagbo's residence.
Rebel sources said divisions between a rebel faction that took over parts of Abidjan last month and the invaders from the north may be holding up the final assault.
France mulls evacuation
The fighting has brought the number of people killed since the post-election violence began in November to more than 1,300 with reports of carnage in the west of the country in which aid organisations said more than 1,000 people were killed.
The United Nations mission in Ivory Coast (ONUCI) said on Saturday that traditional hunters known as Dozos had joined Ouattara's forces in killing 330 people in Duekoue, in the west. Ouattara rejected allegations that his forces took part.
The International Committee of the Red Cross said on Saturday that at least 800 people were killed in intercommunal violence in Duekoue this week. It is not clear whether the 330 counted by ONUCI is included in that figure.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said in a conversation late on Saturday with Ouattara he was "concerned and alarmed" about reports pro-Ouattara forces may have killed civilians. Ouattara told him his forces were not involved in the killings.
France said its forces took Abidjan airport to facilitate the evacuation of foreigners and sent an additional 300 troops.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy on Sunday called on French citizens in Abidjan to assemble together without delay as a means of protection against fighting.
Defence Minister Gerard Longuet said evacuation of France's 12,000 citizens in Ivory Coast was under consideration.
"This is a question which is being asked and which will be settled in the next few hours," Longuet said on France's LCI.
In Paris, armed forces spokesman Colonel Thierry Burkhard said by taking the airport, they had "control over the airspace (which) allows those who wish to leave the country to do so".
Around 1,600 foreigners, of whom about half are French, have taken refuge at a French military camp close to the airport.
Burkhard said about 170 foreigners of varied nationalities took military flights from Abidjan to Dakar in Senegal and Lome in Togo on Sunday, but added it was not an evacuation per se.