By Tim Cocks and David Lewis ABIDJAN/DAKAR, March 1 (Reuters) - Ivory Coast’s post-poll crisis is degenerating into armed conflict, with gun battles between forces loyal to presidential rivals erupting in the commercial capital Abidjan and the volatile west of the country.
Incumbent leader Laurent Gbagbo has defied international pressure to step down after U.N. certified poll results showed he lost an election that was meant to end years of stalemate following a 2002-3 civil war.
His rival Alassane Ouattara is internationally recognised as president-elect of Ivory Coast but remains trapped in a lagoon-side hotel under siege by the pro-Gbagbo military, but forces siding with him have succeeded in seizing a town in the west and large swathes of an Abidjan neighbourhood.
Here are some possible scenarios in the weeks ahead:
THE RETURN TO ALL-OUT WAR
With daily AK-47 assault rifles and heavy weapons fire booming through Abidjan, and clashes erupting in various places across the country this week, a return to all out civil war is looking increasingly likely.
Gbagbo still retains the public loyalty of the armed forces but, fearing a coup, is believed to have ensured that only his core elite forces have adequate access to the army’s weapons.
U.N. accusations that Gbagbo has been seeking attack helicopters from Belarus further support fears of war. Both Belarus and Gbagbo’s government have denied the accusations.
It is not clear whether Ouattara is ready to sanction a full-blown rebel advance, as it would taint his credibility if he came to power. Nor is it clear the rebels would succeed if they mounted any such offensive.
But analysts say Gbagbo’s forces may be spread thin if clashes are opened up on enough fronts and he risks defections if losses within his ranks start building up — as they seemed to do this week, with a number of deadly ambushes in Abidjan.
A military source says increasing numbers of soldiers in the Ivorian military are deserting, by switching their phones off and going into hiding. A few are defecting to the other side.
An unknown factor remains foreign mercenaries and Ivorian militia fighters that analysts say Gbagbo has on his payroll, although he needs money to pay them at a time when the financial noose is closing around him from sanctions and bank closures.
Ivory Coast’s crises have a habit of fizzling into a slow burn neither war nor peace stalemate — as has been the case since 2002-3. In this scenario, no side makes much progress and the frontline doesn’t move much from the existing north-south one, with armed men on each side looting what they can from a rapidly shrinking economy.
But previous such stalemates were possible because negotiations held out the hope of a resolution eventually. That now seems impossible since Gbagbo effectively tore up the peace process by refusing to accept the poll results.
In this scenario, there would be a high likelihood of civilian unrest. This week saw pro-Gbagbo mobs attack Ouattara supporters and U.N. peacekeepers, after a call by Gbagbo’s youth leader to set up roadblocks and block their movements.
African presidents tasked with resolving the Ivorian crisis by proposing a “binding solution” have been given another month to complete what appears to be a Herculean task.
Divisions emerged within the panel during their working visit to Abidjan, with Burkina Faso’s president and the head of ECOWAS objecting to the AU continuing with its trip despite threats against them by pro-Gbagbo supporters.
Both sides have dug in so deep it is unclear what the AU might propose that would be palatable to both.
An outside chance is talk that the AU could propose scrapping the Nov. 28 poll and holding a new one, potentially even with both Gbagbo and Ouattara ruled out and an outside force like Nigeria filling the security vacuum.
This is unlikely to be popular in either camp but could be seen as the only way to break the deadlock.
Analysts see this as extremely unlikely unless his own life is in danger. Gbagbo has shown that he is more than willing to watch his country implode economically and head back to all out civil war if it will keep him in power.
He has brushed off Western economic sanctions, bank closures and threats of force by West African regional bloc ECOWAS. He has also snubbed offers of a potentially lucrative soft landing in exile in the United States or South Africa.
The killings of dozens of Ouattara supporters by pro-Gbagbo forces or allied militias in past weeks also create a strong disincentive for him to leave voluntarily, fearing reprisals or being tried for war crimes in the International Criminal Court.
However, if the insurgency that is raging in Abidjan could attract enough army defectors to reach the gates of Gbagbo’s house, that might be more persuasive.