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Ivory Coast's pro-Ouattara forces storm presidential palace

Rights groups warn that civilian casualties could be high as forces loyal to President-elect Alassane Ouattara surround the residence of incumbent President Laurent Gbagbo in Abidjan.

By Scott BaldaufStaff writer / April 1, 2011

This photo taken on February 23, 2010 in Abidjan shows Ivory Coast soldiers standing guard in front of the presidential palace.

Issouf Sanogo/AFP/Getty Images/Newscom/File

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Johannesburg, South Africa

The conflict in Ivory Coast appeared to enter its final phase Friday as forces loyal to President-elect Alassane Ouattara stormed the presidential palace of incumbent President Laurent Gbagbo in Abidjan.

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Mr. Ouattara’s troops have extended their presence from their stronghold in the country's north all the way south to the nation’s largest port of San Pedro, inland to the nation’s capital of Yamoussoukro, and now to the largest city and commercial capital of Abidjan.

Mr. Gbagbo's whereabouts are unknown at this time. Pro-Ouattara forces seized control of the presidential palace Friday, and a spokesman for the president-elect said they believed the incumbent was inside, but a spokesman close to Gbagbo said he was in a "secure location" in Ivory Coast.

IN PICTURES: Ivory Coast besieged

With Ouattara now in control of about three-quarters of the country and the end seeming near for Gbagbo, concerns also mounted over civilian safety.

On Friday, the initially impartial African Union called for Mr. Gbagbo to “immediately hand over power to President Alassane Ouattara, in order to shorten the suffering of the Ivorians.” Gbagbo refused to step down after a Nov. 28 presidential election, which international election observers, the United Nations, and African Union all claim Ouattara won.

Human rights organizations warn that the next few days of street fighting could be horrific as civilians almost inevitably get caught in the crossfire of urban street fighting.

The pro-Gbagbo state television and radio station have been shut down by Ouattara’s forces and most local newspapers have ceased publishing in the ongoing chaos. In the current media blackout, the potential for misinformation or panic is high, hampering civilians' ability to make decisions about where to head for safety.

“The ongoing military battle for control of Côte d’Ivoire’s business capital, Abidjan, could be accompanied by atrocities and massacres," Reporters Without Borders warned in a press release. “Amid a climate of confusion in which information is hard to confirm, Reporters Without Borders also warns against any score-settling and reprisals within the highly-polarized Ivorian media. The suspension or disruption of media activities is likely to encourage rumors and disinformation.”

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