As Ivory Coast fighting escalates, window for talks narrows

An African Union panel is to meet Wednesday about Ivory Coast's crisis. Supporters of President-elect Alassane Ouattara and former President Laurent Gbagbo are clashing, and pro-Ouattara forces have taken control of several towns along the Liberian border.

Rebecca Blackwell/AP
Ivory Coast's internationally-recognized President, Alassane Ouattara, right, addresses journalists following a meeting with African Union commission chairman Jean Ping, left, at the Golf Hotel in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, March 5. Ping traveled to Abidjan on Saturday to invite Ouattara and defiant leader Laurent Gbagbo to attend a March 10 meeting of AU leaders in Ethiopia.
Rich Clabaugh/Staff

A panel of five African presidents, delegated by the African Union to run a fact-finding mission on the looming crisis in Ivory Coast, is due to arrive in the AU headquarters in Addis Ababa on Wednesday, presumably to meet with the leaders of the opposing sides and to report their findings.

It is not certain whether either President-elect Alassane Ouattara or former President Laurent Gbagbo will attend the meeting. Mr. Ouattara has spent the last three months holed up in the Golf Hotel in Abidjan, protected by a few hundred UN peacekeepers and surrounded by pro-Gbagbo forces.

Yet while the AU panel still officially continues to talk of looking “forward” toward a negotiated settlement, including a possible powersharing deal between Ouattara and Mr. Gbagbo, fighting on the ground and massacres of civilians in urban areas may be rapidly closing the window for negotiation.

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Over the weekend, videos of the shooting of pro-Ouattara women protesters by pro-Gbagbo military trucks spread through social networks like Twitter and Facebook, and over the video-sharing site YouTube. Separate videos of the pro-Gbagbo youth militia “Young Patriots,” apparently burning alive suspected Ouattara supporters at a checkpoint, in full view of Ivorian police, also emerged, indicating that security conditions in Abidjan continue to deteriorate.

During the same time period, pro-Ouattara fighters took control of several towns and villages along the border with Liberia, potentially cutting off a supply of money, weapons, and fighters to the Gbagbo contingent. UN observers say that both sides are actively recruiting Liberian mercenaries into the conflict; to date, the UN says that at least 300 people have been killed, with tens of thousands of others displaced from their homes, many of them fleeing into neighboring Liberia and Sierra Leone.

"The rebels took Toulepleu yesterday after combat that lasted the whole day,” Reuters quoted Yao Yao, the chief of Gbagbo’s Front for the Liberation of the Great West militia force, on Sunday. "We retreated to Bloequin, from where we are preparing a counteroffensive. The military reinforcements arrived yesterday."

While Gbagbo’s supporters refers to Ouattara’s supporters as “rebels,” much of the international community agrees that the overwhelming electoral majority that Ouattara won in the Nov. 28, 2010 elections gives him and his supporters the right to serve as the new government. The AU itself endorsed Ouattara’s victory, with at least a 10 percent margin over Gbagbo, although some members of the AU fact-finding mission – notably South Africa’s President Jacob Zuma – have called the election results “inconclusive.”

Nonsense, says the Brussels-based think-tank International Crisis Group. “There is no doubt Ouattara won the runoff,” Crisis Group says in its latest report, dated March 3. “In an attempt to reverse the result, however, the Constitutional Council – the country’s highest court but entirely controlled by the Gbagbo camp – claimed to have discovered widespread violence and fraud – largely imaginary – in seven departments of the northern and central regions where Gbagbo had received less than 10 per cent of the votes in the first round. It thus cancelled more than 660,000 second-round votes, enough to raise his total from 45.5 per cent to 51.4 per cent.”

South Africa’s intervention is unhelpful, the International Crisis Group says. “Their positions on a crisis whose complexity they appear not to have fully grasped are compromising their credibility on the continent and beyond and undermining trust between ECOWAS (the Economic Community of West African States) and the AU.”

In Paris this weekend to meet French President Nicholas Sarkozy, South African President Zuma was being asked questions about the reasons for South Africa’s change of policy on Ivory Coast when Zuma’s press handler abruptly ended the press conference, saying there was a “security threat.”

Business Day, a South African daily, quoted a diplomatic source, saying it was “a bit strange” that a security threat was declared just moments after questions about Ivory Coast were asked. French security preparations, which are quite strict during state visits, presumably would have ensured Zuma’s safety.

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