Abidjan gunmen fighting Ivory Coast’s Laurent Gbagbo after he refused to concede an election say they want him out. But that doesn’t necessarily mean they all want his rival Alassane Ouattara in.
For nearly a month a shadowy group calling itself the “Invisible Commandos” has inflicted a series of defeats on pro-Gbagbo forces, seizing control of north Abidjan and pushing into Gbagbo strongholds in the west and near the city centre.
Gbagbo’s camp says the commandos are pro-Ouattara “terrorists” trying to oust his legitimate government. Ouattara’s rival administration has meanwhile sought to distance itself from the insurgents taking over parts of Abidjan — and for many the feeling seems mutual, Reuters reports.
“The chief of our movement is General Ibrahim Coulibaly,” a bearded fighter calling himself Colonel Bauer told Reuters.
Coulibaly, known as “IB”, was a senior rebel commander in the 2002-03 rebellion before falling out with the leadership that remains in control of the north of the country and has subsequently backed Ouattara in the power struggle.
There have previously been clashes between various factions of the rebellion and analysts say Gbagbo’s reluctance to step down may only provide a temporary reunifying factor.
“I don’t even know Ouattara. We’ve never met,” said Bauer, wearing a green T-shirt, clutching a walkie-talkie radio and surrounded by uniformed fighters.
Questions over the gunmen’s allegiance are likely to complicate any intensification of the fighting, as well as who would be in control in the aftermath, if Gbagbo is forced out.
Ouattara won a November presidential election, according to U.N.-certified results, but Gbagbo has defied international pressure and sanctions to hand over power, using the army to crush dissent.
The uprising against Gbagbo in Abobo, partly a reaction to systematic killings of civilians by his forces, and renewed fighting with the former rebels across a ceasefire line, appear to have reignited the civil war.
Gun battles and heavy weapons fire have rocked Ivory Coast’s main city. Hundreds of people, mostly civilians killed by Gbagbo’s forces, have died, the U.N. mission says.
Up to a million have fled clashes in Abidjan, a quarter of its population. The Abobo neighbourhood, which the insurgents seized last month, bears the scars of the heaviest fighting.
Buildings are pockmarked with bullet holes and bomb craters. Burnt-out vehicles litter the streets, shops are boarded up or looted and most of the neighbourhood’s quarter of a million people have fled.
Gunmen in ill-matching combat fatigues, sporting ubiquitous AK-47 assault rifles, patrol in pick-up trucks they seized off pro-Gbagbo forces. Some of the gunmen wear balaclavas and sunglasses to hide their faces.
“When (Gbagbo’s men) come, they spray bullets on everything. They must have a lot of ammunition,” said an insurgent commander calling himself Mike, gesturing to walls coated with bullet holes. A charred military vehicle lay overturned in the road.
WHO’S IN CHARGE?
Former rebels controlling the north of the country since the last war have pledged allegiance to Ouattara and pushed south across a ceasefire line in the west of the country.
But the invisible commandos’ allegiance is unclear and potentially divided.
Conflicting statements about who is in charge have surfaced, and IB is regarded as a rival to Ouattara’s government.
The U.N. peacekeeping mission has accused Gbagbo’s forces of indiscriminately shelling civilian areas seen as pro-Ouattara, killing at least 50 people in the past week, a charge they deny.
Human Rights Watch says the insurgents have also committed abuses: killing civilians and executing pro-Gbagbo soldiers.
The rebels say their cause — to chase a dictator from power who has refused to leave peacefully — justifies the means.
“You can’t have a dictator like Gbagbo who agrees to something then changes his mind,” said a commando called Defn, wrapped in a belt of grenades and with fingers bejewelled in rings. “We don’t want to kill him, just to make him leave.”