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 , Staff writer

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

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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.

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.

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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.”

Human Rights Watch also warned that forces loyal to Gbagbo have been accused of attacking West African immigrants, particularly Liberians, who they suspect of being potential mercenaries fighting on Ouattara's behalf.

"We are concerned about several things: one, there have been reports of scores of civilians killed or wounded by snipers of the Republican Guard, who are the presidential guard for former President Gbagbo, at their headquarters in Treichville; and two, there is a strong potential for reprisal killings by Ouattara's forces both in Abidjan and in other parts of the country where they have recently taken control," says Corinne Dufka, a West Africa researcher for Human Rights Watch in Dakar, Senegal.

"It's not clear what happens next. There is a lot of resistance and very heavy fighting going on, and the danger for civilians is very real."

Nearly 500 civilians, most of them Ouattara's supporters, have been killed in the past four months at the hands of Gbagbo's supporters. However, Ouattara's forces launched an offensive last week that could increase the death toll several-fold.

A UN spokesman told the BBC that “the countdown has started.” Some of Gbagbo’s top supporters within the military are defecting and seeking refuge with the UN and Ouattara has reportedly given his personal guarantee that Mr. Gbagbo will be safe.

But in the Abidjan neighborhood of Yopougon, Gbagbo’s supporters reportedly attacked the homes of colleagues who have abandoned the Gbagbo cause and some say that they will fight to the very end. Even a pro-Ouattara spokesman, Patrick Achi, told reporters that he doesn't believe Gbagbo will concede, according to Reuters.

Gbagbo “hasn't shown any signs of giving up. I don't think he will see the game is up, because he really believes God will save him,” Mr. Achi said.

IN PICTURES: Ivory Coast besieged

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