ABIDJAN — Gunfire and explosions shook Ivory Coast’s main city Thursday as supporters and security forces loyal to the two men claiming to be president clashed in the streets, killing at least 15 people and bolstering fears the world’s top cocoa producer is teetering on the edge of another civil war.
One errant rocket-propelled grenade struck an outer perimeter wall of the U.S. Embassy in Abidjan during the fighting, but no injuries were reported and the damage was minor, according to two U.S. State Department officials in Washington who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly.
The bloodshed in the lagoon-side commercial capital — once known as the “Paris of Africa” for its cosmopolitan nightlife and chic boutiques — is part of a risky push to take control of state institutions by Alassane Ouattara, the widely recognized winner of an election that millions once hoped would reunite the West African nation after a 2002-2003 war split it in two.
International rights group Amnesty International warned the regional powerhouse “has never been so close to a resumption of civil war.”
“Every effort must be done to prevent further escalation of violence,” the group said.
Long streams of light and heavy machine-gunfire and unexplained explosions were audible for 30 to 45 minutes in the streets outside the U.N.-protected Golf Hotel, where Ouattara has attempted to govern while incumbent Laurent Gbagbo rules from the presidential palace.
The exchange of fire erupted when rebel troops — who control the north of the country and are helping guard Ouattara — tried to remove makeshift roadblocks on streets near the hotel, Ouattara communications adviser Massere Toure told The Associated Press.
Ouattara’s camp said government forces killed one rebel in the clash and wounded two others. Both the army and police declined to comment on the fighting.
The violence brought skyscraper-lined Abidjan to a standstill. Businesses were closed and fearful residents stayed home. City streets were deserted except for soldiers and police, who also used batons to beat back demonstrators, some of whom hurled stones from rooftops at security forces.
Elsewhere, riot police fired tear gas and live rounds to disperse gathering protesters in multiple parts of the city. In the Abobo neighbourhood, an AP photographer saw the bodies of three men lying in the street who several witnesses said had been shot by police. One had been shot in the head, two others in the chest. Several more were wounded during midmorning clashes elsewhere, according to AP reporters on the scene.
Ivory Coast has been operating with two presidents and two governments since a disputed Nov. 28 runoff. Ouattara was declared the winner by the country’s electoral commission, but the next day, the constitutional council overturned those results after invalidating a half-million votes from Ouattara strongholds.
The dispute has raised fears of renewed unrest in a country known for decades as a beacon of prosperity and stability in a part of Africa better known for coups and war; its cocoa plantations attracted millions of immigrants from neighbouring nations.
Ouattara draws much of his support from the country’s rebel-held north, while Gbagbo’s power base is in the south.
Casualty tolls for the day’s violence varied. Traore Drissa, a prominent lawyer who runs the Abidjan-based Ivorian Movement for Human Rights said 15 people were killed, while senior opposition official Amadou Coulibaly put the toll at 18 dead. Amnesty counted at least nine corpses. Police could not be reached for comment.
Amnesty International’s West Africa researcher Salvatore Sagues said it was “appalled by this completely unjustified and disproportionate use of force.”
“Those who opened fire on these people, as well as those who gave the order,” he said, “will have to account for their acts.”
Drissa, the Ivorian rights worker, said clashes had also broken out in the capital Yamoussoukro as well as the rebel stronghold of Bouake and the central town of Tiebissou.
On Friday, Ouattara plans a second march to take back other government buildings and hold a Cabinet meeting.
“The next two days will determine everything. It’s all or nothing,” said Jean-Claude N’dri, a cable television salesman in Treichville neighbourhood, where riot police and soldiers loyal to Gbagbo fired tear gas to disperse one group of around 500 people. Streets there filled with hazy clouds of smoke as gas canisters burned.
Similar violence broke out in the city’s Cocody district. And outside the opposition coalition headquarters, police in armoured vehicles fired into another hundreds-strong crowd of demonstrators, wounding three people, said Michel Bazia, a civil servant who lives in the neighbourhood.
Ouattara — whose election victory has been acknowledged by the U.N., U.S., France and the African Union — has called on his backers to help him take control of state institutions. On Thursday, they had vowed to march to the national television station to install a new state television chief, but they did not get close.
The two stations broadcasting from the building are the only Ivorian broadcasters in the country. They provide a powerful voice for the person controlling them: In the days after the U.N. said Gbagbo lost, people watching Gbagbo-controlled state TV saw only the announcement of his victory.
The TV building is being heavily protected by Gbagbo’s troops, and police and soldiers sealed off streets around it Thursday, blocking them with multiple roadblocks and parked armoured personnel carriers.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has warned the politically charged environment could spark a new civil war. Others have urged restraint.
Corinne Dufka of Human Rights Watch said the day’s violence was “extremely worrying and should serve to remind political leaders on both sides of the need to take all measures necessary to ensure their subordinates act with discipline and restraint.”
Associated Press writers Todd Pitman in Dakar, Senegal and Matthew Lee in Washington contributed to this report.