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Ivory Coast's 'Invisible Commandos' attack renegade president's strongholds

In the latest sign of impending civil war in Ivory Coast, fighters loyal to President-elect Alassane Ouattara are moving out of their strongholds to attack those of renegade President Laurent Gbagbo.

By Marco Chown OvedCorrespondent / March 15, 2011

Fighters opposed to Laurent Gbagbo's bid to cling to power manned a roadblock in the Abobo district of Abidjan, Ivory Coast on Saturday.

Rebecca Blackwell/AP

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Abidjan, Ivory Coast

Fighters loyal to Ivory Coast's internationally recognized President-elect Alassane Ouattara advanced out of their strongholds in the West African nation's main city Monday.

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The self-described "Invisible Commandos" are now pressing the escalating battle for the presidency into new neighborhoods and closing in on the presidential palace, which renegade Laurent Gbagbo has refused to vacate since losing the Nov. 28 election.

Automatic weapon fire interspersed with the booms of mortar explosions echoed through the abandoned high rises in the central business district of Abidjan, emptied of its businessmen and street hawkers who fled in fear of the encroaching civil war.

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Irregular fighters, wearing traditional woolen shirts and amulets they claim protect them from harm, had been fighting Mr. Gbagbo's police and military in Abobo and PK-18, two northern districts of Abidjan where Mr. Ouattara is popular. As of last week, they had solidified their control of these neighborhoods, effectively carving out a piece of Ivory Coast's biggest city.

Now they're moving forward.

In the early hours of Monday, the fighters slipped into the Banco forest, a wild green expanse in the center of the city, emerging on the other side and laying siege to the house of the head of Gbagbo's army. The house is located at the edge of Yopougon, a notoriously pro-Gbagbo neighborhood where Ouattara supporters were lynched, and in some cases burned alive, in the past couple of weeks.

It's unclear whether the Invisible Commandos took the house and then abandoned it, as some of them who were contacted by telephone claimed, or whether the attack was successfully repelled, as Gbagbo's government announced on state television. At the end of the day, however, Gbagbo's police were again in control of the neighborhood.

West Africa's gem now a war zone

Abidjan, once known as the "Jewel of West Africa," is starting to look more and more like a war zone.

Bullet holes scar building facades and puncture the doors of parked cars. Roadblocks manned alternatively by police, soldiers, and armed militias proliferate.

"I'm scared to come to work," says one hotelier who asked that his name not be published. "These boys running the roadblocks threaten everyone. They grabbed my bag to search it even though it only contains my work shoes."

The Nov. 28 election was intended to reunite the country after a civil war and protracted peace process had allowed Gbagbo to stay in power five years after his mandate expired.

Instead, it thrust the world's top cocoa producer back to the brink of civil war.

Ouattara, by all measures, won the election, but the country's constitutional council, in a dubiously constitutional move, unilaterally threw out more than half a million votes and overturned the results, declaring Gbagbo the winner. Ouattara has received the near-unanimous support of the international community, and has translated this into financial sanctions in an attempt to starve Gbagbo out of power. Gbagbo, however, maintains control of the state bureaucracy and its security forces, which he has been using to hunt down and execute Ouattara supporters, spreading a campaign of terror that the UN says has killed more than 400 people.

The 'Invisible Commandos'

The mysterious Invisible Commandos rose up after a particularly brutal crackdown two weeks ago when seven women were mowed down by military police with machine guns.

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