ABIDJAN (Reuters) - Ivorian gunmen fighting to depose Laurent Gbagbo after he refused to concede an election were advancing across Abidjan on Monday, bringing their fight closer to the city centre and the presidential palace.
Witnesses in the Abidjan suburb of Adjame, about 3 km (1.9 miles) from the central business district where Gbagbo’s palace lies, said gunmen backing Gbagbo’s rival Alassane Ouattara had taken over parts of it and were fighting pro-Gbagbo forces with AK-47s and heavier weapons.
An electoral dispute between Gbagbo and Ouattara, who won a November presidential poll according to U.N.-certified results, has led to weeks of gun battles in Abidjan between pro-Gbagbo forces and fighters claiming loyalty to Ouattara. It threatens to reignite a 2002-3 war the election was supposed to resolve.
The election was meant to draw a line under years of crisis after a rebellion divided the country in two, but has merely entrenched the divisions between the mercantile peoples of the semi-arid north and the agricultural people of the humid south.
The latest African Union effort to mediate in the dispute in the world’s top cocoa grower failed last week, underpinning cocoa futures’ 32-year highs.
“There’s firing everywhere and loud noises from heavy weapons,” said taxi driver and Adjame resident Adams Diarra. “People say the rebels have moved in here from Abobo.”
Residents of the leafy suburb of Angre said gun battles had been raging there for several hours. A Reuters reporter nearby heard small arms fire and explosions in the evening.
Forces loyal to Gbagbo said they launched an assault on Saturday to drive pro-Ouattara fighters calling themselves “invisible commandos” out of northern Abidjan’s Abobo district, where they have held sway for three weeks.
But on Monday, the commandos appeared to have expanded the territory in which they operate to areas 10km from their base.
Analysts fear Gbagbo will use his “Young Patriot” movement — a disparate group of violent youths who have wreaked havoc on Abidjan in the past — as a last resort. They have set up road blocks all over the country and many have automatic weapons.
Their leader Charles Ble Goude made an address on state TV in which he said he would launch a “historic appeal to liberate Ivory Coast” within the next 24 hours.
Gunmen also clashed on Monday morning in an Abidjan stronghold of Laurent Gbagbo, just outside the private house of his army chief, witnesses and a security source said, but it was later calm and state TV denied his residence had been attacked.
Ouattara’s rival administration, operating out of a lagoon-side hotel protected by U.N. peacekeepers, extended a cocoa export ban in place since late January until March 31.
The ban, alongside Western sanctions, have ground the cocoa sector to a near halt.
There has also been renewed fighting at a north-south cease-fire line, in place since rebels seized half the country in the war, where the gunmen said they took a fourth small town from Gbagbo’s forces over the weekend.
A spokesman for Ouattara’s parallel government said the fighters were not under his command and were acting alone.
Residents said those fighters still controlled most areas on Sunday and by Monday appeared to be moving south.
“To my knowledge there is no decree taken by the president (Ouattara) to create a republican force. They are forming naturally ... There is nothing formal,” said Patrick Achi.
Additional reporting by Loucoumane Coulibaly; Writing by Tim Cocks; editing by Matthew Jones