Battle For Ivory Coast May Be Nearing The End

The fight over who should run Ivory Coast seemed to be reaching its endgame Friday as forces loyal to a rival of longtime ruler Laurent Gbagbo entered the main city of Abidjan and attacked the presidential residence.

Witnesses in Abidjan described heavy weapons fire in the Cocody neighborhood around Gbagbo's presidential residence as armed forces behind U.N.-certified President-elect Alassane Ouattara tried to elevate him to power and oust Gbagbo.

NPR's Ofeibea Quist-Arcton reported that rebel forces succeeded in wresting control of the pivotal state broadcasting complex, Radio Television Ivoirienne, and imposed a nighttime curfew until Sunday, announcing the closure of Ivory Coast's borders.

But they may face fierce resistance on the peninsula where the presidential palace is located, surrounded on all sides by a natural moat — Abidjan's glassy lagoon.

Witnesses from all across Abidjan said they could feel the vibration of bombardments.

U.N. peacekeepers moved to secure the Abidjan airport by sending armed elements and additional personnel there, according to a U.N. peacekeeping official in New York who was not authorized to speak publicly.

Patrick Achi, a spokesman for Ouattara, said the fighters — largely drawn from a northern rebel group that launched a 2002 rebellion against Gbagbo — had breached the city limit overnight.

It was unclear whether Gbagbo was inside the presidential mansion. The defiant leader has not been seen in public since the offensive began five days ago.

"We don't know where he is," a senior diplomat told The Associated Press. He asked not to be named because he is not authorized to speak to the press.

A Swedish woman working for the United Nations was killed by a stray bullet during fighting in Abidjan on Thursday night, the Foreign Ministry in Stockholm confirmed. Some 500 foreigners sought refuge at a French military base, Col. Thierry Burkhard told the AP.

The chairperson of the commission of the African Union, Jean Ping, urged Gbagbo to immediately hand over power to Ouattara "in order to shorten the suffering of the Ivorians," the AU said in a statement from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.

Gbagbo lost last November's presidential election, according to his country's election commission and international observers, but has stubbornly refused to step down. Sanctions imposed on him and his inner circle failed to dislodge him.

The armed offensive is the most severe threat he has faced, and analysts say they expect Gbagbo's regime to fall within days. "It's over — except for the shooting," the diplomat said.

After months of political deadlock, armed forces backing Ouattara launched a rapid offensive this week, overrunning nearly 80 percent of the country as soldiers fled and towns fell in quick succession. The regular army put up almost no resistance until the armed group reached Abidjan on Thursday, and what is expected to be the final battle began.

In the main point of entry in the city's far north, where a four-lane highway reaches the door of Abidjan, a resident told the AP that he saw the column of pro-Ouattara fighters arrive early Friday morning.

He described dozens of transport trucks and 4x4s mounted with machine guns entering the suburb of Anyama, loaded down with uniformed fighters. The population of Anyama, one of the areas that voted in large numbers for Ouattara, lined the road to salute the force.

As the columns of pro-Ouattara forces advanced, the head of the army, Gen. Phillippe Mangou, sought refuge at the home of the South African ambassador in Abidjan with his wife and five children.

By midafternoon, as many as 50,000 soldiers, police and gendarmes had abandoned Gbagbo, according to the head of the United Nations mission, Choi Young-jin. "Only the Republican Guard and his special forces have remained loyal," guarding the palace and residence, he told France-Info.

NPR's Quist-Arcton said Gbagbo maintained his grip on power because he was able to keep paying the army and its hardcore element, the Republican Guard. But she said Mangou's defection was the last straw.

"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?" Quist-Arcton said.

Up to 1 million people have fled the fighting and at least 490 people have been killed since the election, most of them supporters of Ouattara, according to the AP.

On Saturday, the International Committee of the Red Cross said that more than 800 people were killed Tuesday in violence in Duekoue.

Spokeswoman Dorothea Krimitsas told The Associated Press by telephone that Red Cross teams saw a "huge number of bodies" when they visited the region in western Ivory Coast on Thursday and Friday. It is not clear whether Ouattara's forces were involved in the killings, but the killings occured the day after the armed group seized the town.

Now that Ouattara is practically at the door of the presidential palace in Abidjan, it's still not clear whether that will bring an end to the violence.

"It looks as if Ouattara is going to take over, but will that be the beginning of the end, or will there be pockets of resistance from pro-Gbagbo militias and the pro-Gbagbo presidential Republican Guard?" Quist-Arcton said.

That, she said, is the question that can't yet be answered.

NPR's Ofeibea Quist-Arcton reported from Accra, Ghana, for this story, which contains material from The Associated Press.

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