Forces loyal to the two men claiming Ivory Coast’s presidency clashed in the streets of the commercial capital on Thursday, killing at least 20 people and bolstering fears that the world’s top cocoa producer is on the verge of another civil war.
Explosions and gunfire were heard throughout Abidjan — once known as the “Paris of Africa” for its cosmopolitan nightlife and chic boutiques.
An errant rocket-propelled grenade struck an outer perimeter wall of the US embassy, but no injuries were reported and the damage was minor, US Department of State spokesman P.J. Crowley said in Washington.
Ivory Coast has been operating with two presidents and two governments since a disputed Nov. 28 runoff election. Alassane Ouattara was declared the winner by the country’s electoral commission and was recognized by the UN, the US, France and the African Union as having beaten incumbent Laurent Gbagbo, but the next day the constitutional council overturned the results after invalidating half a million votes from Ouattara strongholds.
Crowley said a combined delegation from the African Union and the Economic Community Of West African States would be in Abidjan soon “to continue to encourage President Gbagbo to step aside.”
The bloodshed in Abidjan is part of a risky push by Ouattara to take control of state institutions after the balloting that many hoped would reunite the West African nation following a 2002-2003 war that split it in two.
Amnesty International warned that the regional powerhouse “has never been so close to a resumption of civil war.”
“Every effort must be done to prevent further escalation of violence,” the group said.
The US and other nations have given Gbagbo an ultimatum to step down and leave Ivory Coast within days or face travel and financial sanctions, a senior official of the administration of US President Barack Obama said.
The official said the US, the UN, France and the African Union had passed the message to Gbagbo’s camp that “he has to go” and that there were signs he might agree. The official spoke on condition of anonymity.
The official would not describe the signs, but noted that Gbagbo and his family have “multiple homes in multiple countries” that they would not be able to use if sanctions are imposed.
Streams of gunfire and unexplained explosions were heard for 30 to 45 minutes in the streets outside the UN-protected Golf Hotel, where Ouattara has tried to govern. Gbagbo rules from the presidential palace.
The shooting erupted when rebel troops who control the north of the country and are helping guard Ouattara tried to remove makeshift roadblocks near the hotel, said Ouattara’s communications adviser, Massere Toure.
The deputy spokesman for the UN, Farhan Haq, said mortars and other heavy weapons were used in the fighting.
He said the UN has deployed about 800 military and police and eight armored personnel carriers at the Golf Hotel to provide security together with French troops and rebel forces. He said the UN had stocked up on water, generators and fuel at the hotel.
Casualty tolls for the day’s violence varied.
Gbagbo’s minister of education, Jacqueline Oble, confirmed 20 deaths in a statement read on state television, but specified that 10 of those were police killed by protesters, who she said fired on the officers. Senior opposition official Amadou Coulibaly put the toll at 30.