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.

Rebecca Blackwell/AP
Fighters opposed to Laurent Gbagbo's bid to cling to power manned a roadblock in the Abobo district of Abidjan, Ivory Coast on Saturday.

Fighters loyal to Ivory Coast's internationally recognized President-elect Alassane Ouattara advanced out of their strongholds in the West African nation's main city Monday.

The self-described "Invisible Commandos" are now pressing the escalating battle for the presidency into new neighborhoods and closing in on the presidential palace, which renegade Laurent Gbagbo has refused to vacate since losing the Nov. 28 election.

Automatic weapon fire interspersed with the booms of mortar explosions echoed through the abandoned high rises in the central business district of Abidjan, emptied of its businessmen and street hawkers who fled in fear of the encroaching civil war.

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Irregular fighters, wearing traditional woolen shirts and amulets they claim protect them from harm, had been fighting Mr. Gbagbo's police and military in Abobo and PK-18, two northern districts of Abidjan where Mr. Ouattara is popular. As of last week, they had solidified their control of these neighborhoods, effectively carving out a piece of Ivory Coast's biggest city.

Now they're moving forward.

In the early hours of Monday, the fighters slipped into the Banco forest, a wild green expanse in the center of the city, emerging on the other side and laying siege to the house of the head of Gbagbo's army. The house is located at the edge of Yopougon, a notoriously pro-Gbagbo neighborhood where Ouattara supporters were lynched, and in some cases burned alive, in the past couple of weeks.

It's unclear whether the Invisible Commandos took the house and then abandoned it, as some of them who were contacted by telephone claimed, or whether the attack was successfully repelled, as Gbagbo's government announced on state television. At the end of the day, however, Gbagbo's police were again in control of the neighborhood.

West Africa's gem now a war zone

Abidjan, once known as the "Jewel of West Africa," is starting to look more and more like a war zone.

Bullet holes scar building facades and puncture the doors of parked cars. Roadblocks manned alternatively by police, soldiers, and armed militias proliferate.

"I'm scared to come to work," says one hotelier who asked that his name not be published. "These boys running the roadblocks threaten everyone. They grabbed my bag to search it even though it only contains my work shoes."

The Nov. 28 election was intended to reunite the country after a civil war and protracted peace process had allowed Gbagbo to stay in power five years after his mandate expired.

Instead, it thrust the world's top cocoa producer back to the brink of civil war.

Ouattara, by all measures, won the election, but the country's constitutional council, in a dubiously constitutional move, unilaterally threw out more than half a million votes and overturned the results, declaring Gbagbo the winner. Ouattara has received the near-unanimous support of the international community, and has translated this into financial sanctions in an attempt to starve Gbagbo out of power. Gbagbo, however, maintains control of the state bureaucracy and its security forces, which he has been using to hunt down and execute Ouattara supporters, spreading a campaign of terror that the UN says has killed more than 400 people.

The 'Invisible Commandos'

The mysterious Invisible Commandos rose up after a particularly brutal crackdown two weeks ago when seven women were mowed down by military police with machine guns.

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.

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."

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