Ivory Coast conflict deepens as protests mount over disputed elections

Military police loyal to Ivory Coast's incumbent President Gbagbo fired Thursday on opposition marchers supportive of Alassane Ouattara, who is widely acknowledged to have won the recent election. The death toll was more than a dozen.

Sunday Alamba/AP
Supporters of Ivory Coast opposition leader Alassane Ouattara chant slogans outside the Golf Hotel where Ouattara has attempted to govern while incumbent Laurent Gbagbo rules from the presidential palace in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, on Dec. 16.

Military police loyal to Ivory Coast's incumbent President Laurent Gbagbo fired Thursday on opposition marchers, while at the same time the first battle between opposition members and government forces in more than six years broke out. The violence fueled fears that an election that was supposed to cap a protracted peace process will instead usher in a new civil war.

A number of people were killed – estimates ranged from nine to as high as 40 – as supporters of Mr. Gbagbo's opponent, Alassane Ouattara, who is broadly accepted as the winner of last month's presidential election, attempted to heed Mr. Ouattara's call to take over the state television station in the commercial capital of Abidjan.

Their target was apt. The two channels broadcast out of the station's low, flat building provide the only news available to the majority of Ivorians, as no private television is permitted. Since the disputed election, state TV has refused to report Ouattara's win or any of the support he has received from abroad – including the United Nations, the United States, France, Germany, and Nigeria. Instead, for two weeks now, Ivorians have been subjected to a propaganda campaign with a simple message: Laurent Gbagbo is the legitimately elected leader of the country.

When the nightly curfew that this west African nation has lived under for more than two weeks lifted at 5 a.m. on Thursday, people began descending into the streets, gathering and moving toward the TV headquarters.

Ouattara's gambit appeared to be that soldiers wouldn't fire on peaceful demonstrators supporting a democratically elected president while all the world looked on.

But Gbagbo surrounded the TV building with heavily-armed soldiers, and security forces thwarted many marchers by targeting them early on in their neighborhoods, at first using tear gas but soon turning to live ammunition and even machine guns.

At first, protesters across the city were audacious, throwing bricks from rooftops at police gathered below. But, soon the tide turned and clouds of tear gas sent people fleeing.

A small group of Ouattara supporters were marching in the Koumassi marketplace early in the day when police confronted them and pulled one young man from the crowd.

"They shot him in the stomach with a tear gas cannister at point blank range," said protester Ahmed Konate. "He fell to the ground in a cloud of gas and didn't get up. He was dead."

This kind of scene was repeated in pro-Ouattara neighborhoods across the city, with deaths from police gunfire reported in several districts.

The day's major confrontation occurred when Ouattara officials attempted to leave the Golf Hotel, where they have been holed up since the election. Republican Guards loyal to Gbagbo had set up barricades around the hotel, which has been turned into a fortress by UN peacekeepers, since they endorsed Ouattara's election victory.

Rebel soldiers loyal to Ouattara were sent to clear the way, and came under fire from the Guards, who employed heavy machine guns and rockets, Ouattara's spokesman Meite Sindou said.

The explosions could be heard echoing across town and US embassy officials later said that their perimeter wall was struck by an errant rocket.

The pro-Ouattara rebel soldiers pushed Gbagbo's forces back, but were unable to break out, Mr. Sindou said, and suffered two wounded and one dead in the encounter. Police and military contacted for comment refused to give any casualty numbers for their side.

More worrying yet, many witnesses reported that those wearing Republican Guard uniforms were speaking English on the street, raising the spectre of Liberian mercenaries, who have fought for both sides at different points of this conflict, since it began in 2002.

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