Gun battles and explosions raged overnight in an Abidjan neighbourhood, residents say, where mysterious insurgents the local press are calling the “invisible commandos” have risen up against incumbent Laurent Gbagbo.
Hundreds of residents continued to stream out of Abidjan’s Abobo neighbourhood, the latest battle ground between Gbagbo and presidential claimant Alassane Ouattara over a violently disputed November election that was meant to bring peace. U.N.-certified results showed Ouattara won that vote, but Gbagbo has refused to concede and the conflict appears to be entering a new phase, as open street combat between pro-Gbagbo and pro-Ouattara forces flares up in Abidjan and fighting has spread to the west.
“Gun shots were echoing everywhere throughout the night and there was heavy arms fire. We haven’t slept a wink,” said resident Souala Tiemoko. “This morning, the streets are thronging with people trying to get out. They are going to other neighbourhoods or villages.”
A Reuters witness saw hundreds marching along the roadside leading out of Abobo, home to over a quarter of a million, carrying what belongings they could salvage. Residents of the capital Yamoussoukro, where Gbagbo and senior officials have a retreat but where little government business goes on, reported an outbreak of gunfire overnight. “There was shooting all night here in Yamoussoukro. It woke me up around midnight and carried on until 2 a.m. Stray bullets were flying around,” said resident Salif Caba. “This morning, I saw a police vehicle burned.”
The spread of clashes in the world’s top cocoa grower comes amid diplomatic efforts by the African Union to resolve a dispute that look increasingly unlikely to achieve anything. Cocoa futures have been propelled to 30 year highs by the insecurity. The United Nations says over 300 people have been killed in the conflict, but diplomats think that figure to be hugely understated because Ivory Coast’s military rarely discloses casualites of their own or civilians they kill.
Fleeing businesses, and economic sanctions by the European Union and United States aiming to squeeze Gbagbo financially, are fast wrecking the economy of this once prosperous nation. Ivory Coast’s 80,000 barrel per day SIR refinery, a target of Western sanctions, said on Friday it was operating “at a minimum” and is struggling to secure crude oil.
Fighting spread to the volatile west of the country on Thursday, when rebels who seized the northern half of the country in a 2002-3 civil war, clashed with the pro-Gbabgo Ivorian military. No further clashes were reported overnight. Abidjan’s northern Abobo neighbourhood has become the scene of daily bloodshed. “There are a lot of people who have left now,” said resident Hamed Fofana. “We thought the battle would end yesterday but it continues to terrify us.”
Gbagbo’s government spokesman Ahoua Don Mello says the gunmen are rebels who have come down from the north, but Ouattara’s parallel government, operating out of a Lagoon-side hotel guarded by U.N. peacekeepers, says they are civilians and army defectors who have taken up arms against Gbagbo.