Heavy fighting in Ivory Coast over the country’s disputed election may augur a return to civil war the UN warned as clashes raged in Abidjan and in western regions of the country, violence that left 13 people dead, one side said.
For the first time since the contested poll in November, the UN said on Thursday that troops loyal to incumbent Ivorian President Laurent Gbagbo were attacked by commandos claiming loyalty to his opponent. Previously, Gbagbo’s troops had clashed with unarmed protesters loyal to challenger Alassane Ouattara.
“It changes the game,” local UN spokesman Hamadoun Toure said. “Before, it was clashes between police and protesters. Now if it’s the beginning of fighting between two armed forces, it could have serious consequences for the country or even the region.”
A military spokesman for Ouattara’s camp, Captain Leon Kouakou Alla, said the forces allied with Gbagbo were defending themselves.
He said they acted alone and not under his orders.
“They’ve been harassed, kidnapped and killed by Gbagbo’s men, so they’re now defending themselves — it’s normal,” he said.
Residents reported automatic arms fire on Thursday morning in the Abobo district of Abidjan, the commercial capital, after three days of heavy fighting between police forces loyal to Gbagbo, who refuses to cede power, and a force calling itself the “invisible commandos,” believed to include former rebels.
Hundreds of people fled Abobo on Thursday on foot via the main road leading from the neighborhood, some pushing wooden carts, others with their possessions wrapped in sheets. Police sealed off the area and turned back all cars attempting to enter.
Fighting also broke out on Thursday morning in the west of the country near the border with Liberia and Guinea, the local UN peacekeeping mission reported. This area is particularly sensitive as more than 40,000 internally displaced people are currently in the region and another 40,000 have fled across the border, according to the UN.
“This is a breach of the ceasefire that has been holding for the last six years,” Toure said.
Ouattara’s camp says New Forces rebels allied with them came under attack in the country’s west by irregular militiamen allied with Gbagbo at 5am on Thursday.
Twelve pro-Gbagbo militiamen were killed, a truck with a machine gun mounted on it was seized, along with ammunition and several Kalashnikovs, a statement signed by Alla said.
One person on the New Forces side was killed, the statement said.
The development marks a significant escalation in the country’s political crisis that erupted late last year after Gbagbo refused to accept defeat in the presidential election, even though UN-certified results showed that he had lost by 9 percentage points to Ouattara, the opposition leader. With the backing of the army, Gbagbo has stayed in the presidential palace, while Ouattara is in a barricaded hotel.