ABIDJAN (Reuters) - Laurent Gbagbo’s camp has called on Ivory Coast’s civilians to help his forces “neutralise” suspected rebels, raising fears of a return to all out civil war as fighting continued in Abidjan on Friday.
The world’s top cocoa grower has been gripped by an increasingly violent power struggle since a disputed November 28 election, which Alassane Ouattara won, according to internationally-recognised results, but Gbagbo refuses to concede.
In recent weeks, the crisis has escalated into full scale armed conflict between forces loyal to each in Abidjan and in the west, across a north-south cease-fire line in place since the end of a 2002-3 civil war.
At least 25 people were killed when pro-Gbagbo forces fired a series of mortar rounds into Abidjan’s northern Abobo district on Thursday, including one that exploded in a busy marketplace, the U.N. peacekeeping mission said.
Speaking on state-run RTI television just before midnight, Gbagbo’s government spokesman Ahoua Don Mello called on Ivorian civilians to join the fight against what he called “terrorism.” “His Excellency Mr Laurent Gbagbo calls on Ivorians to take a great responsibility and for a stronger collaboration between citizens and the security forces ... so that all suspect presences in our environment can be ‘neutralised’,” he said.
France’s foreign ministry said on Friday the former colonial power wants the United Nations Security Council to adopt tighter sanctions quickly against Gbagbo.
His use of civilian militias is seen as one of his most dangerous weapons. His “Young Patriots” — often armed, angry youths — have wreaked havoc on Abidjan in the past.
Pro-Gbagbo youth mobs armed with automatic weapons, sticks and machetes have set up roadblocks all over town and have attacked United Nations staff and killed a number of West African immigrants and members of Ouattara’s Dioula tribe, according to a Human Rights Watch report.
On Friday, residents of Abobo which is now more or less under the control of forces backing Ouattara, reported shooting and heavy artillery fire from pro-Gbagbo troop positions overnight and in the morning.
“There was a big exchange of fire. It hit some shops and quite a few caught fire,” said Abobo resident Abdoul Ouattara.
A Reuters reporter heard gunfire and explosions from the direction of Adjame, just north of the central business area, and in the leafy Cocody suburb, where state TV is based.
Ouattara has been recognised as president by nearly all world leaders, as well as the United Nations and the African Union, but Gbagbo has defied sanctions, using the military that still backs him to entrench his position and crush dissent.
Before Gbagbo’s spokesman Mello appeared on state-run television, a news report said the U.N. peacekeeping mission was smuggling mercenaries from Burkina Faso, Mali and Senegal to fight alongside the rebels — seemingly another attempt to whip up popular hatred against the mission and West African immigrants.
Gbagbo is furious with the mission for recognising Ouattara’s win in the disputed election. He has ordered the world body’s forces out of the country but the U.N. has ignored him and continues to protect Ouattara in a lagoon-side hotel.
HRW warned systematic attacks on civilians by Gbagbo’s forces may count as war crimes, and Ouattara could be held responsible for abuses by the gunmen fighting in his name, including summary executions of Gbagbo’s soldiers.
Editing by David Lewis and Sophie Hares