Ivory Coast Fighting Centers On Abidjan

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For the latest developments in the Ivory Coast, Steve Inskeep talks with journalist Marco Chown Oved who's in Abidjan.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne,

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep. Good morning.

We're continuing to follow the news from the west African nation of Ivory Coast, where there is talk today of a possible cease-fire and the possible exit of the longtime president. Now, fighting in this nation centers on the country's most city, Abidjan. Fighters have surrounded that city. These are troops backing the man who won a presidential election last November. With the help of United Nations and French forces, they're moving in on the longtime strongman Laurent Gbagbo, who until now has refused to give up his job.

A little bit earlier today we reached journalist Marco Chown Oved in Adidjan. What have you seen in the last 24 hours or so?

Mr. MARCO CHOWN OVED (Reporter, Associated Press): It's a pretty incredible escalation of hostilities. Until now, we had seen pretty much a ground advance across the country. These rebel soldiers that are loyal to internationally recognized President Ouattara arriving on the doorstep of Abidjan and then nothing for a few days.

Yesterday, the airstrikes began and this is sort of a pretty surprising implication of the international community. We'd sort of been saying this is not Libya. There aren't enough international interests in this country. There aren't enough people dead to turn heads around the world. But it seems that we were wrong.

Yesterday, the United Nations used some helicopter gunships to attack military bases around this city. And again, another surprising aspect is that the French pitched in. the French who have a presence here in the country historically -this is, of course, a former French colony - have always said that they're only here to protect their own citizens. Yet yesterday they pitched in with their own helicopters, attacking the presidential palace and the state television.

INSKEEP: So we the French, U.N. forces and people supporting the elected president on one side moving into the capital. Is it clear that President Gbagbo still has forces fighting on his side or have they fled?

Mr. OVED: Well, I think that many of them have fled. But those who are still here fighting seem to be the hard core, those who are not willing to surrender. Judging by the machine gun fire that we're hearing this morning there are definitely at least a few still defending President Gbagbo.

We've been calling around to the different neighborhoods this morning and the fighting is still quite intense in and around the presidential residence. There is where we've heard that Mr. Gbagbo is holed up in a bunker underground. But -and he's surrounded by his Republican Guard, which is 2,000 to 2,500 of his most elite, highest trained and best equipped soldiers.

INSKEEP: Let me pass on a claim to you that comes out of France. The elected president, effectively the rebel in this situation, has appointed an ambassador to France. And that ambassador is saying that President Gbagbo is negotiating some kind of surrender. That's his claim anyway. Is there any evidence of that on the ground where you are or any confirmation?

Mr. OVED: Well, what I can confirm to you is that a witness that lives only several hundred yards from the presidential residence said that it was burning this morning. There were plumes of smoke rising from Laurent Gbagbo's house -flames even. And this is of course as fighting continues around the residence.

If I was in a house and it was burning and there was fighting around me I would probably be negotiating my way out as well. We are hearing various rumors but nothing concrete.

INSKEEP: Just to be clear on the geography here. Is there anywhere for President Gbagbo to go if he loses control of Abidjan, or is the rest of the country effectively in the hands of his opponents at this point?

Mr. OVED: No. No. The country is virtually entirely in the control of forces loyal to Alassane Ouattara. Leaving Abidjan at this point would probably mean only one thing for Laurent Gbagbo, and that's exile to a foreign country.

INSKEEP: And what shape is the city in? By which I mean how destructive has the fighting been around the city, at least as much as you've been able to see?

Mr. OVED: The fighting is very intense, but really only around certain strategic points. There are these two main bridges, and they're really the main corridor. We're not far from those bridges right now and there are machine gun nests set up on both them, shooting pretty much - opening fire on anyone who attempts to cross these bridges.

But in terms of the city itself it's a just quiet lockdown zone except around these key points.

INSKEEP: Journalist Marco Chown Oved is speaking with us from Abidjan, the largest city, the most important city in Ivory Coast.

Thanks very much.

Mr. OVED: Thank you.

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