Fighting flared in a strategic town in western Ivory Coast on Wednesday, killing at least two people, with five more killed in Abidjan, as security forces cracked down on neighborhoods sympathetic to presidential claimant Alassane Ouattara.
Residents of Duekoue reported several hours of heavy and small arms fire in the town, which has seen years of tensions, but has remained under the control of incumbent leader Laurent Gbagbo since a 2002-2003 war divided the country.
Rebels who seized the north of the country during the war and who now back Ouattara, internationally-recognized winner of a November poll that Gbagbo refuses to cede, denied involvement.
The push in the west and heavy fighting in Ivory Coast’s main city, Abidjan, have sparked fears that an election meant to reunify the country could instead rekindle civil war.
Security in the main commercial city has been rapidly deteriorating since gunmen claiming allegiance to Ouattara took over its northern suburb, prompting pro-Gbagbo forces and allied youth militias to set up roadblocks and kill suspected Ouattara supporters.
Those gunmen advanced across Abidjan on Monday, bringing their fight closer to the city center and presidential palace.
Witnesses said security forces cracked down on Ouattara supporters and suspected rebels in Williamsville and Port Bouet 2, areas of west Abidjan, killing at least three.
“There is shooting everywhere as the security forces patrol the neighborhood,” Port Bouet 2 resident Alidou Dao said. “Lots of people are leaving.”
A resident of Williamsville saw his neighbor and two other people on his street dragged out of their homes by gunmen in police uniforms, who then slit their throats. A police spokesman was not immediately available for comment.
The UN estimates about 400 people have been killed.
New York-based Human Rights Watch has said atrocities committed by forces loyal to Gbagbo have been organized on a scale that may constitute war crimes, while gunmen backing Ouattara have also been accused of executions.
In Attecoube, right next to the town center where the UN peacekeeping mission is based, armed pro-Ouattara youths attacked and burned down a local police station, and two were killed by police firing to repel them.
“The youths arrived, some armed with guns, some with stones. They attacked the police, who fired to repel them, then fled,” witness Junior Seiba said. “I saw two dead protesters.”
Other towns in the west have been fought over since the post-election power struggle began, but Duekoue is the most strategically important as it sits on the main road from the west to the cocoa-producing center-west regions.