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.
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Ouattara's political advisers deny having any control over the irregular fighters, who up until now were simply defending their neighborhoods from police attack. Speculation is rife, however, that the Invisible Commandos are led by members of the New Forces rebels, known as FN for their French acronym, a well-equipped and well-trained professional army loyal to Ouattara.Skip to next paragraph
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Monday's advance comes on the heels of yet another failed mediation effort, when the African Union endorsed Ouattara's victory and demanded Gbagbo step down immediately. Gbagbo's camp rejected this, as it has rejected a half-dozen previous international mediation attempts, and Ouattara's ground-level support seems to be taking the situation into their own hands, pushing for a military solution in spite of their leader's reticence.
"We assumed at the beginning that President Gbagbo had a large military force," says local United Nations peacekeeping mission head Choi Young-jin. "But this doesn't at all correspond with the facts since the majority of the military doesn't want to fight."
Out of a total of more than 50,000 police and military forces under Gbagbo's control, Mr. Choi believes that only the 5,000 special forces troops will fight to defend their president.
Standing against them are somewhere between 5,000 to 10,000 New Forces rebels and the small but determined force of invisible commandos.
Rebels take towns in the west
Far from the fighting in Abidjan, the rebels are also pressing forward in the jungle in the west of the country along the border with Liberia. Over the weekend the FN took a fourth town there, attempting to seal the border to prevent Gbagbo from smuggling in weapons and mercenaries. While some analysts speculate that the rebels will push 250 miles south to the country's strategic port of San Pedro to gain a foothold on the coast, others doubt the rebel's ability to sustain such a large offensive.
"That border is 100 percent porous, and would take thousands of soldiers to patrol even quasieffectively," says Christian Bock, senior adviser at the London-based security consulting firm Avascent International. "(The) FN have indeed taken all major crossing arteries, but there is still a very fluid passing of men and materiel."
One Western diplomat, who spoke on a condition of anonymity, says that Ouattara doesn't want to attack because as a legitimately elected leader he doesn't want to be seen to take the country by force. Perhaps more important, the diplomat says, it's because he lacks the munitions to do so – though it's difficult to assess the military capabilities of both sides.
"There is no shortage of small arms and full military conflict could drag on for years using existing stores, regional networks, and other capabilities of smuggling," Mr. Bock says.
UN mission leader Choi, however, holds out hope for a peaceful transition of power.
"I think that the military solution always carries a great danger because it changes the dynamic," he said in a radio interview on Monday. "The current dynamic is democracy, legitimacy, and the elections. If we opt for the military option, the winner will be the winner. So we shouldn't change the dynamic."
Despite the appearance that Gbagbo's forces had regained control of Yopougon by the end of the day Monday, one Invisible Commando who called himself Fofana explained that the attackers weren't beaten back.
"They might have left," he says, "or they might have just melted back into the population."