Heavy Fighting Descends On The Ivory Coast Main Of Abidjan

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Hundreds of foreign nations are trying to flee the Ivory Coast's main city, Abidjan. That's in the wake of heavy fighting between two rivals who both claim to be president of the West African nation. Incumbent president Laurent Gbagbo has refused to give up power after losing December's Presidential election to opposition leader, Allasane Outtara. Opposition fighters have entered Abidjan where they've been battling forces loyal to Gbagbo for control of the country's commercial capital. Host Michel Martin gets the latest from Associated Press reporter in Rukmini Callimachi in Abidjan.


I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News.

Former Ambassador David Mack was there when Moammar Gadhafi assumed power in Libya all those years ago. He represented the U.S. for decades in that part of the world. And he'll join me in a few minutes to talk about possible scenarios for what might happen next in Libya and in Yemen, where the White House is now suggesting that that country's president and ally should now leave.

But first, to the rapidly changing developments in the Ivory Coast. As we've told you previously, the man recognized internationally to have won last November's presidential election, Alassane Ouattara, has not been allowed to take office because the incumbent, Laurent Gbagbo, will not concede defeat. The dispute has led to much violence, a near shutdown of the country's massive coco exports and a sense of panic today in the Ivory Coast's main city of Abidjan.

That's where we found Rukmini Callimachi of the Associated Press, and she's with us once again.

Thanks so much for joining us.

Ms. RUKMINI CALLIMACHI (Reporter, The Associated Press): Thank you, Michel. Nice to be back.

MARTIN: Now, I understand that you and the other journalists have actually been holed up for some days, and that's a situation that resembles that of many of the residents of that city.

Ms. CALLIMACHI: It does, indeed. We haven't been able to go outside of our hotel since Wednesday night. I came in on Wednesday, and I was one of the last reporters that was able to make it from the airport to here before the fighting began. And they were using heavy artillery, machine guns. Most of us are doing our reporting by looking out the window of the hotel.

MARTIN: On the other side, though, we hear that there's a very large force on the outskirts of the city backing, you know, Ouattara, who are, in fact, poised to move into the capital. Is that true?

Ms. CALLIMACHI: That's true. And colleagues of mine who have just come from there - it's only about 20 to 30 miles from where I am right now. They say that there's thousands of troops. They've got dozens, possibly over 30 cars, new Kalashnikovs, anti-aircraft guns. They're all there on the outskirts of the city. The big question is why they haven't come in yet.

They started their advance last Monday. And from Monday to, I would say, Thursday, they basically took the rest of the country. They came from the east, from the west, the north, from the borders, and bore down on Abidjan. And then when they reached the outskirts of Abidjan - for some reason that's not completely clear - they stopped. There's all sorts of chatter that maybe there's some sort of internal turmoil in the rebel ranks, but we don't exactly know why they haven't gone for the final coup de grace yet.

MARTIN: Is there any talk of any further negotiations to avoid further bloodshed? And I do want to mention here that the United States, the Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton has issued a strongly-worded statement saying that we, the United States, are deeply concerned by the dangers and deteriorating situation in Cote d'Ivoire, including recent reports of gross human rights abuses and potential massacres in the west. The U.S. calls upon former president Laurent Gbagbo to step down immediately.

And she goes on to say, of course, that the U.S. - as much of the international community - recognizes Ouattara as the winner of the elections last November. But the reports of these gross human rights abuses and a possible massacre were actually directed at Ouattara's forces. There are reports that there are a number of civilians killed in the west of the country in the town of Duekoue. Do we know anymore about that?

Ms. CALLIMACHI: The issue here is this election happened November 28th, right? So it's been a full four months since Alassane Ouattara was declared the winner of that election. And since that election - really since December of last year - Ouattara has been begging the international community to come in and remove Gbagbo, because he said Gbagbo will never step down peacefully.

He tried every single possible diplomatic means available. I've lost count of how many high-level delegations came. African Union envoys, ambassadors, heads of state from other African countries, they came one after another and met with Gbagbo, tried to talk to him.

In a way, it's very unfortunate. I think Ouattara has been pushed into a terrible position, which is that the international community will most likely not authorize a military intervention, especially now that Libya is the works. And all along, he had the backing of this rebel army in the north. And they've been raring to go.

To his credit, he held out for a very long time, specifically because this former rebel army, they were accused, in a past civil war - this was in 2003 and 2004. They were accused of some horrible abuses. And he did not want to be seen as having taken, you know, the country by force. Anyway, finally, after the last round of diplomatic talks failed, he finally kind of agreed to let these guys come in.

And what's happened? Well, sure enough, in Duekoue, we're hearing about really terrible human rights abuses. However, I have to say, it's not totally clear what happened there. I think Ouattara's forces may well have been involved. That's what the U.N. is saying. But it might also be that there was revenge killings on the other side from Gbagbo.

MARTIN: The New York Times is reporting that according to the United Nations, some 330 people had been killed, while eight organizations are saying the death toll could be as high as 1,000. And they're also reporting that it isn't clear how many were civilians and how many were combatants.

So, finally, before we let you go, is the United Nations playing a role at this point, trying to keep the two sides separated? Is there any endgame scenario that anyone envisions that does not include further violence?

Ms. CALLIMACHI: I think the end game that everybody is waiting for is for Ouattara's forces to come into the city, into Abidjan, and march on the presidential palace or march on the residence - we don't know exactly where Gbagbo is holed up - and arrest him. And I think most of the international community backs that option. Now, what's going to happen as a result of that? Will there be human rights abuses? We don't know. But that's what we're all poised and waiting for. Abidjan is a city under siege. Nobody can go outside, and we're just waiting for the final phase of the battle.

MARTIN: Rukmini Callimachi is with The Associated Press. We reached her in Abidjan, Ivory Coast. And she's with us by phone from there.

Rukmini, thank you so much for joining us.

Ms. CALLIMACHI: Thank you, Michel. Have a great day.

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