Strategic Ivory Coast Towns Fall To The Opposition

Opposing forces in Ivory Coast are bearing down on the disputed leader Laurent Gbago in the main city Abidjan. The U.N. Security Council gave him a last chance to relinquish power peacefully to Alassane Ouattara, the internationally-recognized president-elect.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Let's get an update now on the conflict in the West African nation of Ivory Coast.

Hundreds have been killed in fighting over just who is the president there, after a disputed election last fall. And now there's been a dramatic military turnaround.

The man the international community recognizes as the legitimate winner is driving his troops towards the coastal city of Abidjan. NPR's Ofeibea Quist-Arcton reports.

OFEIBEA QUIST-ARCTON: Lightning military advances across Ivory Coast by Alassane Ouattara's troops have caught Laurent Gbagbo, the defiant incumbent, off guard. In a matter of days, Gbagbo's army has lost control of strategic towns in the west, the east and the center, including the symbolic administrative capital, Yamoussoukro. That city fell to Ouattara's forces yesterday, opening the way south to the commercial capital Abidjan, which remains Gbagbo's stronghold, despite his rapidly diminishing authority and increasing diplomatic isolation.

A resident told the BBC there was little if any resistance as Ouattara's republican forces swept through Yamoussoukro.

Unidentified Man #1: OK. 'Cause right now we can hear...

Unidentified Man #2: Right now we can hear shooting coming from all around the town. I think it's coming from the strategic points of the town. It's the soldiers loyal to Alassane Ouattara, who's entered the town. People are in the streets, waving at them. They're clapping and cheering for them. They're very happy. Sometimes you hear the odd burst of gunfire. In these circumstances, people have to be very careful.

QUIST-ARCTON: Latest reports say Ouattara's soldiers are continuing to capture territory and have entered Ivory Coast's key cocoa exporting seaport, San Pedro, in the southwest.

The U.N. Security Council last night unanimously voted for a resolution proposed by Nigeria and the former colonial power, France, imposing sanctions on Gbagbo, his wife Simone, and other aides, as well as warning against the continued use of heavy weapons in Abidjan. The Security Council also warns Gbagbo, who has seemed impervious to international pressure for the past four months, that his time is up.

Gerard Araud is a French U.N. ambassador.

Ambassador GERARD ARAUD (French Ambassador to U.N.): This resolution is maybe the last message that we wanted to send to Gbagbo, which is very simple. Gbagbo must go. It's the only way to avoid a full-fledged civil war and maybe bloody violence in the streets of Abidjan.

QUIST-ARCTON: Ouattara's and Gbagbo's forces have clashed in Abidjan this past month, with more deaths and injuries. And any possible battle for Abidjan or a last stand by Gbagbo's troops could be deadly, warms Chris Fomunyoh, the Africa director of the Washington-based National Democratic Institute.

Mr. CHRIS FOMUNYOH (National Democratic Institute): That would be a nightmare scenario, but my hope is that ultimately as various towns and military garrisons begin to fall into the pro-Ouattara camp, that some of the hardliners within then be Laurent Gbagbo camp will realize that this fight is not worth putting on.

QUIST-ARCTON: The international criminal court has warned it may prosecute those responsible in both camps for human rights abuses in Ivory Coast. But Alassane Ouattara's recently appointed U.N. ambassador, Youssoufou Bamba, is upbeat that the end is in sight. Speaking in New York, he confidently predicts it's only a matter of time until Ouattara takes over as president.

Ambassador YOUSSOUFOU BAMBA (Ivory Coast Ambassador to U.N.): Believe me, tomorrow we will be taking our luncheon at the presidential palace. By tomorrow evening it will be at the presidential palace. President Ouattara will be there. Because Mr. Gbagbo, he has confiscated power. He has lost by the ballot and he has to go.

QUIST-ARCTON: Anxious Ivorians are hoping for a peaceful negotiated settlement to a long and deadly crisis.

Ofeibea Quist-Arcton, NPR News, Accra.

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