MELISSA BLOCK, host:
Now to the ongoing conflict in the West African nation Ivory Coast. Fighting there has intensified between forces loyal to the two men who both claim to be the country's rightful president. Ivory Coast has been in a state of political chaos since November's disputed election. Thousands of young supporters of the contested incumbent now say they will join the army to liberate their country.
From Abidjan, NPR's Ofeibea Quist-Arcton reports that the volunteers are responding to a call which many fear increases the likelihood of civil war.
(Soundbite of rally)
OFEIBEA QUIST-ARCTON: We are ready to kill. Those little rebels are going to die. Would you like a Kalashnikov rifle? That was the chant and response at the army's headquarters here in Ivory Coast this morning. Thousands of young men and a few young women known as Young Patriots gathered to enlist in the armed forces. They're followers of Charles Ble Goude, the man they call their streetwise general. He's the youth minister in the government of disputed president Laurent Gbagbo.
(Soundbite of rally)
QUIST-ARCTON: At a mass rally over the weekend, Ble Goude asked his Young Patriots to sign up.
(Soundbite of rally)
Mr. CHARLES BLE GOUDE (Political Leader, Ivory Coast): (Foreign language spoken)
QUIST-ARCTON: Are you ready to fight to liberate your country? Gbagbo's youth minister asked thousands of his supporters four times. Each time, the same reply, yes, let's free our country, they chanted.
Ble Goude has been under international sanctions since 2006 for inciting violence in Ivory Coast. But he claims it's not his supporters who are behind the recent wave of killings in the commercial capital, Abidjan.
Mr. BLE GOUDE: We don't lead the country with militia. We don't need to kill people that we want to lead. My appeal is to the Young Patriots for them to be enrolled in the army to defend the country.
QUIST-ARCTON: Twenty-three-year-old mother Jo Nicole is one of the few women to join the thousands of young men who answered Gbagbo's minister's call and lined up today to join the army. She says she's doing it for her young son.
Ms. JO NICOLE: (Through translator) I've never taken up arms in my life, but we're suffering. Our country has been attacked by rebels and terrorists. We need to free this country. I'm going to carry a Kalashnikov and liberate my country.
QUIST-ARCTON: For almost four months, Ivory Coast has been paralyzed by a political tug-of-war between Gbagbo and Alassane Ouattara, internationally recognized as president-elect. Forces loyal to both Gbagbo and Ouattara blame each other's armed supporters for a surge in killings.
International rights watchdogs say both sides are responsible. But in the latest attack, on a marketplace last Thursday in the pro-Ouattara suburb of Abobo in Abidjan, the U.N. says between 25 and 30 people were killed by mortar shells fired by Gbagbo's security forces.
Hamadoun Toure is the spokesman for the U.N. peacekeeping mission.
Mr. HAMADOUN TOURE (Spokesman, U.N. in Ivory Coast): (Through translator) We've expressed outrage and condemned the attack. It's just not acceptable in a built-up area. Whenever we think we've hit rock bottom, the situation gets worse and it's becoming unbearable for civilians. We're going to take all necessary measures to protect civilians, in line with our mandate.
QUIST-ARCTON: Despite the U.N.'s pledge to protect civilians, long lines of residents here in Abidjan are fleeing the city. With their possessions piled high upon their heads and carrying giant plastic bags, children, women and men are heading out of town to their villages. Fearful of a return to civil war, Ivorians are desperately hoping their leaders will make peace during the latest stage of African Union mediation expected later this week.
Ofeibea Quist-Arcton, NPR News, Abidjan.
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