Heavy fighting in Ivory Coast as forces clash around presidential palace

The US is calling for renegade former President Laurent Gbagbo to step down, while relief organizations report a massacre of hundreds in one western town.

By , Correspondent

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    Forces loyal to Ivorian presidential claimant Alassane Ouattara prepare to head to the frontline in the capital Abidjan, Saturday. Soldiers of Ivory Coast's rival leaders battled for the presidential palace, military bases and state TV in the main city Abidjan on Saturday, in a conflict becoming so brutal that it killed 800 people in one town alone.
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Forces supporting Ivory Coast President-elect Alassane Ouattara are closing on the presidential palace where former President Laurent Gbagbo has dug in, in what could be the climax of the violence gripping the West African nation.

An adviser to Mr. Ouattara, the internationally recognized winner of last fall's presidential election, told the Associated Press that fighters loyal to Ouattara were gathering in preparation for a final assault on the palace in Abidjan Sunday. The area around the palace was quiet Sunday, though the AP reports that hundreds of young men had gathered there, apparently in response to Mr. Gbagbo's call for civilians to gather around the palace as human shields.

Abidjan saw heavy fighting on Saturday, reports BBC News, as the two sides exchanged heavy artillery fire in the city as they battled to control the palace, the state television station, and the city's military base.

Amid the fighting, four UN peacekeepers were seriously wounded when pro-Gbagbo soldiers fired a rocket-propelled grenade at a UN personnel carrier. And French forces seized control of the city's airport, with another 300 French soldiers set to arrive in Ivory Coast soon, according to military officials. The French camp is currently protecting more than 1,500 foreigners.

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Saturday also saw reports from the Red Cross and Caritas about a massacre of at least 800 people in the town of Duekoue in western Ivory Coast. Workers from the two relief organizations visited the town Wednesday and found the streets strewn with people killed by small-arms fire and machetes. Red Cross put the death toll at around 800, while Caritas officials estimated it to be more than 1,000. Neither group was sure who perpetrated the massacre.

"The massacre took place in the 'Carrefour' quarter of town, controlled by pro-Ouattara forces, during clashes on Sunday 27 March to Tuesday 29 March," Nicholson said. "Caritas does not know who was responsible for the killing, but says a proper investigation must take place to establish the truth."

He said the victims included many refugees from fighting elsewhere in the country, where rival forces had been battling over a disputed November election.

The AP notes that the link between the massacre and Ouattara's fighters could weaken support for Ouattara. The town of Duekoue has been a hotbed for the conflict between Ouattara and Gbagbo, as political and ethnic divisions there have worsened amid the arrival of refugees from fighting elsewhere in the country.

The massacre also justifies the worries of various relief organizations. As The Christian Science Monitor reported on Friday, those groups were concerned that the apparent end-stage of the fighting in Ivory Coast could increase the risk for civilian casualties.

In response to the worsening situation in Abidjan, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called for Gbagbo to step down in order to put an end to the violence, reports Agence France-Presse.

"The path forward is clear," Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said early Sunday. Gbagbo "must leave now so the conflict may end." ...
Clinton said the United States was "deeply concerned" by what she called "the dangerous and deteriorating situation" in the world's top cocoa producer, including recent reports of human rights abuses and massacres in the west of the country.

And a UN official expressed worry that the fighting in Ivory Coast could spill over into neighboring Liberia, risking a destabilization of a country still recovering from its own civil war.

The South African Press Association reports that Liberian officials worry that the return of Liberian mercenaries fighting in Ivory Coast could threaten the current peace in the nation. And some 130,000 refugees from Ivory Coast have fled to Liberia in recent months.

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