Fighters trying to install Ivory Coast’s democratically elected president months after the disputed vote descended Thursday on the country’s largest city, aiming to unseat the nation’s entrenched ruler as gunfire broke out across Abidjan.
The regular army put up almost no resistance during an offensive that began Monday, allowing the forces backing internationally recognized leader Alassane Ouattara to take over about 80 per cent of the country in a matter of days. Soldiers abandoned their posts, in some instances shedding their uniforms and running.
As the columns of pro-Ouattara forces advanced, the head of the army Gen. Phillippe Mangou sought refuge at the home of the South African ambassador in Abidjan with his wife and five children, South Africa’s foreign ministry said in a statement Thursday.
Former president Laurent Gbagbo hasn’t been seen in public for weeks, even though state TV announced twice on Wednesday evening that he was preparing to address the nation.
“The end is almost here. It’s a matter of hours,” said Patrick Achi, spokesman for Ouattara. “We issued our ultimatum yesterday … If Gbagbo does not want the fighting to happen in Abidjan, he should surrender. If he doesn’t, we have no choice.”
But one of his advisers in Europe told reporters that Gbagbo will not resign.
“He will not resign in the wake of this attack. He is not going to abdicate. He is not going to lay down his arms. He will stay in power to lead the resistance to this attack against Ivory Coast,” said Toussaint Alain in Paris.
As the rebels amassed at Abidjan’s door, Ouattara addressed the nation on his private TV station, saying the fighters had come to force Gbagbo out.
“They have decided to restore democracy and ensure respect of the vote by the people … Today they are at the doorstep of Abidjan,” Ouattara said. “To all those who are still hesitating, whether you are generals, superior officers, officers, sub officers, rank-and-file … there is still time to join your brothers-in-arms,” he said.
Ouattara was declared the winner of November’s presidential election by the country’s election commission and by international observers, but after a decade in power Gbagbo refused to accept his loss. He has used the military to attack the population with heavy-artillery and is accused of arming citizen militias and recruiting foreign mercenaries to defend his grip on power.
Up to 1 million people have fled the fighting and at least 462 people have been killed since the election, most of them supporters of Ouattara.
In Abidjan, fighters already in the northern fringe of the city attacked the municipal prison in order to liberate the political prisoners incarcerated for having opposed Gbagbo’s regime.
Advancing on foot while firing into the air, the rebels set up roadblocks on one of the main thoroughfares in Yopougon, a neighbourhood across the lagoon from the presidential palace.
It is not clear what the fighters will do if they manage to push their way to the presidential palace, located on a peninsula in the city centre, surrounded on all sides by a glassy lagoon.
In the four months since the disputed election, the internationally community has offered Gbagbo a golden parachute on countless occasions, only to be rebuffed at each step. He twice refused to take a phone call from President Barack Obama, who at one point was ready to offer him a teaching position at a Boston university if he agreed to peacefully step aside.
During this time, Ouattara pleaded with the international community asking for a military intervention to oust the defiant leader. Although the United Nations passed resolutions allowing their peacekeepers to intervene to protect civilians, pro-Ouattara neighbourhoods continued to be pummeled with mortars. At one point, there were so many bodies that the local morgue began stacking corpses on the floor because they had run out of space.
On Thursday, U.N. spokesman Farhan Haq said that Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon is closely following the situation in Ivory Coast and is concerned about the heightened violence and urging all parties to “refrain from exacting revenge.”
Ban also reiterated his demand that Gbagbo immediately cede power to Ouattara “to enable the full transition of state institutions to the legitimate authorities.”
In Washington, meanwhile, the top American diplomat for Africa, Johnnie Carson, says Gbagbo will be held accountable for alleged human rights atrocities committed by his forces. But Carson says Gbagbo can help the West African nation avoid worse violence by ending the fight.
The advance by pro-Ouattara forces was a last resort after all other diplomatic means had failed, say Ouattara’s supporters. Ouattara won the election with over 54 per cent of the vote and did not want to be seen as having taken the country by force.
So far, the rebels appear to be mostly disciplined although there have been sporadic reports of pillaging and several instances of revenge killings. His reliance on the irregular fighters could cause him to lose the moral high ground if they begin committing serious abuses. The majority of the gunmen are drawn from the New Forces, a coalition of rebel groups that fought a brief civil war starting in 2002.
Human Rights Watch documented attacks on villages, rapes and racketeering in the country’s north, where they exercised control.
Overnight the rebels took the port of San Pedro, giving Ouattara access to the sea. They also reached Mama, the village where Gbagbo was born and where he built himself a mansion. It marked a symbolic victory, said Seydou Ouattara, a rebel spokesman who is not related to the president.
“The rebels slept in Gbagbo’s bed,” he said.
Associated Press writers Anita Snow at the United Nations, Michelle Faul and Donna Bryson in Johannesburg, and Sophie Tetrel in Paris contributed to this report.