High-level defections, UN sanctions signal possible end for Ivory Coast stalemate

A top Ivorian general has sought refuge with South African embassy, and forces loyal to President-elect Alassane Ouattara have reached outskirts of Abidjan. Will renegade President Gbagbo fight to the bitter end?

Luc Gnago/Reuters
Soldiers loyal to Laurent Gbagbo patrol a street in Abidjan on March 31. Ivory Coast's Alassane Ouattara said his fighters were 'at the gates' of Abidjan on Thursday after a rapid advance aimed at unseating his rival, Gbagbo. Soon after, heavy weapons fire rang out in the center of Abidjan, the West African country's main city, and Gbagbo's elite forces took positions around the presidential palace, Reuters witnesses said.

Ivory Coast’s army chief, Phillippe Mangou, has taken refuge at the residence of the South African ambassador in the country's main city, Abidjan.

The move – coupled with the defection of the country's senior general in charge of the police, Gen. Edouard Kassarate – is a crushing blow to renegade President Laurent Gbagbo, whose refusal to relinquish power since the Nov. 28 election has sparked a return to civil war in the West African country.

Together with fresh United Nations sanctions against Mr. Gbagbo's regime, the defections could mean the long and deadly political stalemate between Gbagbo and President-elect Alassane Ouattara may finally be drawing to a close.

Forces loyal to Mr. Ouattara – the recently renamed Republican Forces of Ivory Coast (FRCI) – have taken control of the key port city of San Pedro and the nation’s official capital, Yamoussoukro. They are also pressing into new neighborhoods of the country's main city, Abidjan. Rumors that Mr. Gbagbo himself had taken refuge with the South African Embassy are rife, but were denied by South African officials.

“Last night, General Mangou took refuge in the ambassador’s residence in Abidjan, together with his wife and five children,” confirmed Clayson Monyela, a spokesman for the South African government’s department of international relations and cooperation. “At this stage we are consulting with the regional authorities, the [Economic Community of West African States], the African Union, and the United Nations about what the next steps will be.”

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The defections of General Mangou and General Kassarate come after months of hard bargaining between Gbagbo and Ouattara, which in the past two weeks have actually tipped the West African country into full-scale civil war.

Ouattara has been accepted as the duly elected president of Ivory Coast by the African Union, the UN, and most African leaders, but Gbagbo has refused to step down. The elections were declared free and fair by the Ivory Coast electoral commission, as well as observers from the AU, the UN, ECOWAS, and several international election observer groups.

In the past four months, more than 460 civilians have been killed, mainly by forces and militias loyal to Gbagbo, according to the UN, and more than 500,000 people have been displaced from their homes, many of them fleeing to neighboring countries such as Liberia and Ghana. Casualties from the recent military advances of the pro-Ouattara forces are harder to estimate, but could run into the thousands.

As pro-Ouattara forces ensconced in Abidjan begin to lay siege to pro-Gbagbo areas, there are fears of potential heavy civilian casualties, especially if pro-Gbagbo forces and militias decide to put up a last-stand fight. Street-to-street fighting – similar to the US Army’s 2004 siege of the Iraqi city of Fallujah – is a worst-case scenario for civilian casualties.

A spokesman for the FRCI told the Associated Press Thursday that the FRCI were on the periphery of Abidjan and would enter the city “on multiple fronts, from multiple directions.”

The political space for Gbagbo is being restricted outside Ivory Coast as well.

In New York, the United Nations Security Council on Wednesday approved economic sanctions on Gbagbo and his inner circle, including freezes on personal financial assets and bans on international travel.

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