Fighting Reported In Ivory Coast's Commercial Capital

Heavy fighting wracked Ivory Coast's commercial capital early Friday with explosions heard downtown near the presidential palace and in the Cocody neighborhood where the presidential mansion and the state TV broadcaster are located.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

There is another war going on in Africa, over who should run the country. And in Ivory Coast it appears to be reaching its end game. Troops, under the man that the international community recognizes as the elected president of Ivory Coast, have been fighting the incumbent president who won't step down. Now those troops have reached the country's most important city, Abidjan.

NPR's Ofeibea Quist-Arcton has been monitoring developments and joins us from the neighboring country of Ghana.

And, Ofeibea, tell us what is happening now in Abidjan.

OFEIBEA QUIST-ARCTON: There has been heavy fighting overnight in Abidjan. And it seems that the main target has been the Presidential Palace. And that's where the disputed and defiant incumbent, Laurent Gbagbo, has been holed up for the past four months. We're told that there has been heavy weapons fire. Witnesses from all over the city, even faraway from the Cocody neighborhood where this residence is located, said that they could feel the vibrations. And, of course, it's the U.N.-certified winner of the disputed November election, Alassane Ouattara's forces, who are trying to dislodge and uproot Laurent Gbagbo.

MONTAGNE: Now, there has been a stalemate over these last four months about who would be the president. These events have happened quite quickly. How did that happen?

QUIST-ARCTON: Well, Renee, you could say a long time or a very short time, it's been four months since the disputed November election. And since then, the world - including president Obama, the United Nations, Alassane Ouattara, African leaders - have been saying to Laurent Gbagbo: Step down, you lost the election. He has refused to do so.

And I think Alassane Ouattara and his loyal forces have everything in place. They had clearly infiltrated Abidjan. They had their forces in the center and northern half of the country that they control. So they gave him an ultimatum: You move or we moved in. So it happened very quickly just this week. But I think they've been preparing this for a very long time, the final push.

MONTAGNE: And the head of the army sought asylum at the home of the South African ambassador. What does this tell us about the military and how loyal it is to the incumbent president who, up till now, has insisted on staying in the presidential palace?

QUIST-ARCTON: I think as long as Laurent Gbagbo could carry on paying the army, carry on paying the Republican Guard - and that's the hard core element in his army - he was sort of okay. But there have clearly been loyalties. I think once General Philippe Mangou decided that he was defecting, with his wife and five children, that was the last straw for Gbagbo - it was a huge blow. And then it said to the army, well, if the boss isn't going to stick around, why should we?

MONTAGNE: Well, now that Alassane Ouattara, the man who - again, the international community recognizes as the legitimate president of Ivory Coast -now that he's in its most important city, at, really, almost a door of the presidential palace, what might happen?

QUIST-ARCTON: I think it depends what happens militarily. Everyone had hoped that the battle for Abidjan could be avoided because of the possibility of loss of life, especially civilian lives. It looks as if Ouattara is going to take over, but will that be the beginning of the end, Renee? Or will there be pockets of resistance from pro-Gbagbo militias and the pro-Gbagbo presidential Republican Guard? That's the questions that can't yet be answered.

MONTAGNE: Ofeibea, thanks very much.

QUIST-ARCTON: Always a pleasure.

MONTAGNE: NPR's Ofeibea Quist-Arcton who's been monitoring events in the Ivory Coast from the neighboring country of Ghana.

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