Ivory Coast's besieged city of Abidjan braces for impending attack

A brief lull in fighting on Sunday allowed UN peacekeepers and French forces in Ivory Coast to evacuate UN personnel and French citizens, as forces loyal to President-elect Alassane Ouattara prepared for assault on Abidjan.

Luc Gnago/Reuters
Supporters of Ivory Coast's Laurent Gbagbo hold Ivorian flags as they walk to the presidential palace in Abidjan April 4. Troops loyal to Gbagbo have held on to positions around the presidential palace and at his residence in the well-to-do Cocody suburb.

Four days into the siege of Ivory Coast's largest city, Abidjan, it's almost as if the internationally recognized President Alassane Ouattara and Laurent Gbagbo, the man who stubbornly refuses to cede power, have decided to leave this half-done battle for another day.

A lightning quick advance by forces loyal to Mr. Ouattara swept across the country last week, only to stall on the doorstep of Abidjan. On Monday, there was barely a shot fired in the downtown core. Sporadic gunfire could be heard across the palm tree-lined lagoon of downtown Abidjan, echoing between the now-empty office buildings and deserted streets.

One pro-Ouattara fighter contacted Sunday claimed that there had been dissension in the ranks, forcing Ouattara to call a tactical retreat. Now, the fighter said, thousands of soldiers were gathered on the northern fringe of the city, ready to advance as soon as the order was given.

"We're going to take the situation into hand," said the fighter, who only identified himself as Commander Ouattara.

This possibility of military action, of course, is exactly what worries human rights activists the most. Already, hundreds of people have died in the past four months of Ivory Coast's post-election stalemate, with an estimated 800 killed in a single day in the western town of Duekoue, according to the UN. Now, diplomats are ramping up even more pressure on the two side, and promising UN protection of civilians until a political solution can be found.

Meanwhile, most of the movement on the ground was carried out by foreigners. French military forces seized the city's international airport early Sunday and immediately landed military cargo planes carrying 300 reinforcements. While commercial flights didn't resume, 167 foreigners – mostly French and Lebanese – were flown to Lomé, in nearby Togo, in what military spokesman Frederic Daguillon said was not an evacuation, just an attempt to fill empty seats on their transport plane.

At the same time, the United Nations – which certified Outtara's election – started evacuating civilian staff from their homes by helicopter to be transferred to their UN rear base in Bouaké, far from the fighting. In recent days, pro-Gbagbo soldiers have opened fire on the UN base in Abidjan, fired rocket-propelled grenades at armored convoys, and even attempted to shell the mission's headquarters on Sunday.

Four months after the election he refused to lose, Gbagbo is more than ever an international pariah. The UN Security Council voted unanimously to impose sanctions on him and his inner circle last week, joining dozens of nations that have called on him to step down.

Initially, sanctions and financial pressure were thought to be enough to pressure Gbgabo to step down, but after numerous mediation attempts, it seems as though Ouattara, who was elected with 54 percent of the vote, had enough with diplomacy and gave the green light to the military option.

The first town his "republican forces" took was Duekoue, where the International Committee of the Red Cross says some 800 people were killed. While US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton condemned the act, calling for a halt to attacking civilians, what exactly took place is far from clear.

The ICRC said the violence was due to "inter-communal" fighting in this region, home to a mish-mash of immigrants from neighboring Liberia, Guinea, and Burkina Faso. The situation has been exacerbated recently by the arrival of tens of thousands of people fleeing the fighting elsewhere.

The Roman Catholic charity Caritas said the number of dead was closer to 1,000, but the UN could only confirm 430. Ouattara's camp put the number at 152.

Both Gbagbo and Ouattara accuse each other of being involved in the killings, saying they are an example of the other camp's brutality.

One likely scenario in this region, which has a history of ethnic clashes, is that locals took advantage of the power vacuum opened after the conquest of Duékoué. The killings may not have had anything to do with either side in the presidential standoff.

Back in Abidjan, going outside is a perilous venture.

Residents are running low on supplies. Despite the danger, young women could be seen fetching water in basins. Men with plastic bags full of water returned home shirtless, with their hands in the air, to indicate they aren't armed. Rumors passed between frightened families contribute to the unease.

As millions of residents huddled in their homes, the importance of state television as a source of information, misinformation, and propaganda became clear. After being cut on Thursday, state television was restored on Saturday and quickly set to work accusing the French and the UN of arming and transporting Ouattara's fighters. TV showed undated footage of the president jovially drinking coffee with his advisers as if nothing was going on.

Several statements were read calling on Ivorian "youths, men, women, children, and seniors" to congregate at Gbagbo's residence to defend the president with a human shield.

By Sunday evening, almost a thousand people had gathered, singing and dancing, in front of the gates to Gbagbo's compound, saying that they were ready to die for their president.

Only steps away, one resident complained that these supporters had "invaded the neighborhood" and were only going to bring trouble. In the days preceding Ouattara's attack on the city, local youths were outfitted with AK-47s, he said, and now they were amusing themselves by shooting into the air.

"They walk around in the street with a grenade on their belt and a beer in their hand," he said. "It's frightening."

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