Dramatic Conflict Unfolds in Cote d'Ivoire
UPDATE 21:40 (Apr 5) - Reuters reported seeing an internal UN document late Tuesday afternoon indicating that Gbagbo had indeed surrendered, but then cited a UN official who said that Gbagbo "had not yet done so but had suggested he wanted to, and had requested U.N. protection."
Reuters also quoted a Gbagbo government spokeperson as saying that negotiations were underway, "based on African Union recommendations which said Alassane Ouattara is president." The spokesperson said they hoped to have a deal concluded "soon" and that legal and security issues for Gbagbo and his camp were being discussed.
France's Foreign Minister Alain Juppé told his country's National Assembly that "we are very close to convincing [Gbagbo] to leave power."
But this seems to contradict some widely held beliefs about Gbagbo's intentions. Several friends, advisors, and analysts who follow Cote d'Ivoire closely have spoken in recent days about the Ivorian leader's absolutist vision of politics, speculating that the man who has come to be seen as an autocrat -- more so than ever since refusing to hand over power after elections last year -- would rather be killed than give up the reins of his country.
Yet through all the stunning military, diplomatic, and humanitarian developments over the past four and a half days, Gbagbo himself has been unheard and unseen. That changed Tuesday evening when he gave a meandering phone interview to the French cable news station LCI, saying, among other things, "I am not a kamikaze...I don't have a death wish."
But Gbagbo also remained steadfast in his refusal to recognize his rival Alassane Ouattara as the winner of elections held last November and rightful president of the country, which is believed to be one of the key requirements being negotiated as part of a potential surrender agreement. "The only thing I'm demanding is to see the true poll results," Gbagbo said.
"I am not fighting, I am defending myself from an attack," he added.
The entire interview can be heard (in French) below.
UPDATE 14:25 (Apr 5) - Gbagbo has sent Alcide Djédjé, his minister of foreign affairs and one of his closest advisors, to the French Embassy with orders to negotiate a cease-fire. Asked by RFI if Gbagbo is negotiating his departure, he said "that's a step I haven't been charged with. We'll have to attend to that issue in the coming hours."
The French Prime Minister François Fillon has said that two generals close to Gbagbo are currently negotiating his surrender, according to Reuters and AFP.
Meanwhile, the humanitarian community online has been active Tuesday, continuing to send bulletins of emergency situations and connecting those in need to those who can help, using the twitter hashtag #civsocial. A young boy shot in the neck was connected to a doctor who removed the bullet and stopped the bleeding. A pregnant woman needed O- blood. It was located at a local blood bank, but friends are still looking for a car to go pick up the blood.
A group of those active on the #civsocial twitter feed are now attempting to ramp up these efforts by setting up a call center in Accra, Ghana. The center, which will be staffed by volunteers -- some of whom recently fled the fighting in Cote d'Ivoire -- over the next 15 days, has already received pledges of telephones, free lines, and reduced fees from one of the primary mobile phone companies in Ghana, AIRTEL. It is now seeking donations to defray the remaining costs. Within a few hours of the appeal's launch, €840 of the requested €2,000 had already been donated by individuals, most giving between €10 and €20.
UPDATE 09:00 (Apr 5) - Laurent Gbagbo is reportedly cornered in a bunker under his residence and negotiating a possible surrender with the French Ambassador. The conflict seems to have taken a decisive turn since late Monday when French and UN troops joined the firefight in Abidjan, destroying Gbagbo's heavy artillery, in what they said was a bid to protect civilians and UN troops who had both been targeted by Gbagbo's weaponry in recent days. The New York Times' Adam Nossiter has the full story.
Alassane Ouattara's spokepeople have just said their troops have taken over Gbagbo's residence and are scouring the multi-level building looking for him, though this has not yet been independently confirmed, according to the BBC.
The civilian population of the city remains trapped inside their homes, many without food or running water, and others without medicine. In an attempt to circumvent the vitriolic partisan chatter that has largely drowned out pleas for help and other useful humanitarian information on the main twitter stream about the conflict, a new hashtag, #civsocial, has been set up to help spread information about doctors available to help the wounded, pharmacies providing medicines, and specific cases of individuals who need help. Tweets Monday included the phone numbers for a 75-year-old man with Alzheimer's, Diabetes, and a heart condition who needed Accu-Check tongue strips; a young girl who had been hit by a stray bullet and needed medical attention; and a pregnant woman at full term who needed evacuation to a medical facility, among many others. Within a short time, tweeters reported that both the girl and woman had received the help they needed and were going to be okay.
UPDATE 16:10 (Apr 4) - Reuters reported mid-afternoon Monday that the promised "rapid assault" on Abidjan by Ouattara's forces has now begun. The commanding officer said he thought it could take up to 48 hours "to properly clean (the city)."
On its liveblog (in French), the Jeune Afrique news site has also just confirmed the beginning of the assault, but noted the streets are currently still calm in Plateau, one of the key central areas of the city. "The only thing that can be seen are women with buckets going out to collect water."
UPDATE 11:20 (Apr 4) - A weekend of fighting throughout Abidjan has not changed the battle lines significantly, though it has trapped most of the city's remaining 4 million people in their homes, and a humanitarian crisis is rapidly developing.
Those who have managed to send out testimonials describe holing up in darkened homes, barricaidng doors against marauding looters -- some of whom seem to be engaged in the battles while others are simply profiting from the chaos -- and rapidly running out of water and food.
An atmosphere of terror is clearly gripping the city's non-combatants. One resident offered a stunning report from inside a home, hearing gunshots and screams from several neighboring houses amid "absolute slaughter and chaos" in the city.
Electricity cuts throughout the city mean water pumps are not circulating water through the city's pipes. And those desperate enough to brave the fighting to seek more provisions are finding no shops open anyway.
But late Sunday, Ouattara's prime minister Guillaume Soro announced that his forces would soon be mounting a "rapid offensive" in Abidjan in an attempt to take final control over the areas where Gbagbo's troops have been fighting back the offensive since Thursday night. At the same time, the Gbagbo-controlled state television station has ramped up its rehtoric, calling on locals to form a human shield around Gbagbo's residence in Abidjan, according to the BBC.
Monday morning residents and journalists were reporting only sporadic heavy arms blasts in the city -- not the rapid and ongoing exchange of fire characteristic of the heaviest fighting. And the BBC's Andrew Harding says pro-Ouattara troops are massing just outside Abidjan, talking confidently of a final offensive, "although they have been saying that for days."
Meanwhile, the situation in Duékoué, the city in the West of the country where the International Red Cross said over 800 people were killed in a massacre last week (the UN says 330), remains very unstable, reports the Harding, who has been to the city and seen "bodies all around."
Groups providing food, shelter, and medical aid to the more than 1 million refugees throughout the country and in neighboring Liberia, including Doctors without Borders, Oxfam, and the International Red Cross, are continuing their efforts under increasing stress.
For regular updates, follow #civ2010 (mostly in French) or #IvoryCoast (mostly in English, but fewer updates) on Twitter. The news station France24 has resumed its liveblog (in French) of the unfolding situation Monday morning. The site jenkinsear.com has also been providing running updates (in English) since Thursday.
UPDATE: 00:30 (Apr 2) - Intense fighting rocked Abidjan throughout Friday morning, with conflicting information about the whereabouts of Laurent Gbagbo and the attacks on and around the presidential residence and palace.
Chaos seemed to reign (audio) in Abidjan most of the day. Residents told BBC and French news agencies of regular heavy arms fire, looting was reported (pic) in many neighborhoods of the city, and twitter was abuzz with warnings about stray bullets menacing non-combattants.
During the afternoon, the propaganda campaign went into full swing, with Gbagbo and Ouattara aides talking to foreign media outlets, both saying their side was in control of key areas and structures. But by late-afternoon, residents reported that the fighting seemed to have calmed somewhat.
The African Union, United Nations Secretary-General, France, and the United States all called on Gbagbo once again to step down. The United States went so far as to urge the French and UN forces to "take all measures possible to protect civilians and prevent looting." France's president Nicolas Sarkozy put in a call to Ouattara. And the UN mission in Cote d'Ivoire offered "to facilitate Gbagbo's departure, if he wished it."
But several people close to Gbagbo said they did not expect him to accept the offer. Toussaint Alain, his adviser in Europe, said Gbagbo had "no intention of stepping down, he will not give up power." Another long-time friend of Gbagbo's told the International Crisis Group that Gbagbo "is someone with an absolute vision of politics - it is live or die in politics."
The UN's high commissioner for human rights warned Ouattara to maintain control over his troops, to avoid atrocities.
But by late evening, Ouattara's forces had not toppled Gbagbo, and in fact Gbagbo's troops were believed to have re-taken control of the RTI state television station, which has been taken off the air after attacks by Ouattara's forces Thursday night. A Gbagbo spokesperson said he would address the nation Saturday or Sunday, once the television apparatus was repaired, though it's impossible to know which statements are made to attempt to influence events on the ground and which are true. Journalists for Le Monde and France 24 news outlets stressed that the extremely dangerous nature of the conflict made verifying rumors nearly impossible throughout the day, though reporters were attempting to piece together information from sources on the ground and in cybersphere.
The day's staggering news came late in the evening, and related to events that took place three days earlier. The International Committee of the Red Cross said its field workers confirmed that more than 800 people were killed Tuesday in interethnic violence in the Western Cote d'Ivoire cite of Duékoué (statement). No more details about the event were immediately available.
LONDON, Apr 1 (OneWorld.net) - Months of political stalemate and violent clashes in Cote d'Ivoire appear to be coming to a dramatic head as the forces of Alassane Ouattara, the internationally recognized president of the country since elections in November, have reached the main city Abidjan and are working their way toward the presidential residence.
As of late Thursday, longtime leader Laurent Gbagbo was believed to still be in his home, refusing to give up power, though some sources indicated he may have fled during the early hours of Friday morning, after the nearby state television station was taken by Ouattara's troops and heavy arms fire was heard throughout the neighborhood around his compound. (See the live blog -- in French -- from the news magazine Jeune Afrique for a play-by-play of events as they unfolded)
Earlier in the day, UN chief Ban Ki-moon urged both sides in the conflict to refrain from reprisals, no matter the outcome of events, but anger runs deep throughout the starkly divided country after months of brutally violent skirmishes and raids.
In once incident last week, 37 people were massacred in a village near the border with Liberia, Human Rights Watch said Thursday, possibly as reprisal for the taking of the village by pro-Ouattara forces. "In a four-month organized campaign of human rights abuses, which probably rise to the level of crimes against humanity, Gbagbo's forces have killed, 'disappeared,' and raped real and perceived supporters of Ouattara," the Human Rights Watch report said. "Armed men supporting Ouattara have also engaged in numerous extrajudicial executions of presumed pro-Gbagbo fighters and supporters."
Almost 500 people are believed to have lost their lives as a result of the violence, and over a million have been forced to flee their homes.
“We are already seeing a lot of car thefts and looting,” a resident of Abidjan told IRIN News. “They burned our people alive [in the pro-Gbagbo district of Yopougon] and there is a natural desire for vengeance. If I myself saw Blé Goudé [longtime pro-Gbagbo militant and youth leader commonly accused of inciting violence] I would want to kill him for the things he’s done.”
For his part, Blé Goudé was rumored to have been refused asylum by the Russian Embassy Thursday night, and to have been taken into protection by UN forces, although neither rumor had been confirmed by early Friday morning.
Amnesty international also warned of a looming "human rights catastrophe" Thursday, saying sources told their researchers that "uncontrolled armed elements loyal to Laurent Gbagbo, including Liberian mercenaries, burned and looted houses, and shot and wounded several civilians" in the town of Guiglo Wednesday in the western part of the country.
After months of political posturing mixed with brutal bouts of violence, events have unfolded incredibly fast this week.
Gbagbo's army chief of staff, General Phillippe Mangou, and many of his forces deserted him during the day on Thursday, after Ouattara's forces swept hundreds of miles through the country over the previous four days, taking the key cocoa port of San Pedro and the contry's symbolic capital, Yamoussoukro, with barely any resistance.
As Ouattara's forces moved on Abidjan, the president-elect imposed a curfew on the city and closed the nation's borders, and his prime minister, Guillaume Soro, was reportedly heading to the city as well, where Ouattara and many of his deputies have been holed up in a hotel for weeks, under siege by Gbagbo's forces but protected by UN troops.
In the early evening, the UN took control of the international airport. French troops deployed in areas with large concentrations of French nationals.
Around 5pm, Soro went on television to tell residents that the city of Abidjan was surrounded by Ouattara's troops, and Gbagbo had "a few hours" in which to surrender. He soon clarified: Gbagbo must give up by 7pm, or "we will go and get him where he is." Soro told reporters that Gbagbo and his entourage would not be harmed if they surrendered, but they would be held to account for any crimes they had committed.
The deadline passed, Gbagbo remained silent, and Ouattara's forces advanced towards the presidential compound, taking the nearby television station a few hours later.
While international diplomats have appealed for calm as the conflict's dramatic finalé unfolds, aid organizations are warning about the toll the fighting has already had on over a million civilians who have had to leave their homes, hundreds of thousands of whom have moved into refugee camps throughout the country and in neighboring Liberia.
"While masses of people fled Abidjan last weekend, many remain in the city, taking refuge with host families or hiding in their homes," the medical aid organization Doctors Without Borders said Thursday. "People come to the few medical facilities still operating only as a last resort. Most health care workers have left; many of those who remain do not come to work because of the insecurity. In addition, medicines and medical supplies are lacking."
The World Food Program said it is managing to feed nearly 300,000 people, though it faces a shortfall of about $30 million.
And the International Committee of the Red Cross said it needs about $22 million more to carry out its work. "Thanks mainly to our neutrality, our independence and the concrete assistance we provide for the victims, we are generally well accepted in the field by the authorities and by the many people bearing weapons, with whom we are constantly developing contacts," said Pierre Krähenbühl, the ICRC's director of operations. "But nothing can ever be taken for granted in a context where security is more and more volatile."
- By Jeffrey Allen
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