April 2, 2011 / 12:26 PM / 9 years ago

UPDATE 4-Fighting rages in Ivory Coast, 800 dead in west

* Battle rages around president’s palace, key sites

* At least 800 dead in western Ivorian town - Red Cross

* TV shows Gbagbo, reportedly at his Abidjan residence

(Adds state TV, reports of rebel divisions)

By Tim Cocks and Ange Aboa

ABIDJAN, April 2 (Reuters) - Soldiers of Ivory Coast’s rival leaders battled for the presidential palace, military bases and state TV in the main city Abidjan on Saturday, in a conflict so brutal that 800 people have been killed in just one town.

Advancing soldiers backing Alassane Ouattara, who U.N.-certified results show won a Nov. 28 presidential election, met stiff resistance from fighters remaining loyal to incumbent Laurent Gbagbo, who has refused to step down.

State television came back on air after fighting took it down for a day, showing Gbagbo drinking tea, saying the pictures were from his city residence on Saturday. It was not possible to verify if the images were recent recordings.

It later repeated the same footage, along with that of troops and young militiamen near his residence brandishing their weapons and chanting pro-Gbagbo slogans. The report said he would never give up, although there was no new sign of him.

A Reuters reporter heard sporadic gunfire and explosions from heavy shelling near the presidential palace throughout the day, and clashes also raged around the office of state broadcaster RTI, back in Gbagbo’s hands after the rebels had initially seized it, and some military bases in the city.

After a brief lull, heavy fighting also resumed outside Gbagbo’s residence, though military sources on both sides said his forces remained in control and showed no signs of giving up.

“We are going to fight to the death. We die or we win,” Noel Dago, a pro-Gbabgo militia fighter by his house said by phone.

“There are a lot of deaths in both camps, but the most determined is the one who will win.”

The International Committee of the Red Cross said at least 800 people were killed in intercommunal violence in the western Ivorian town of Duekoue this week.

Catholic charity Caritas said scores were also missing.

“There were very heavy killings in the wake of the advance of Ouattara’s forces,” Caritas official Jean Djoman said. “We think the total of dead and missing there is about 1,000.”

That would bring the confirmed death toll from violence since the disputed election, in which Ouattara was the internationally recognised winner, to about 1,300.

The actual toll is likely to be much higher.

Responding to a call on state TV to “take to the streets massively to defend the republic,” many from Gbagbo’s youth wing, the Young Patriots, could be seen marching up the bridges or coming on boats cheering and chanting across the lagoon towards the presidential palace, and in other strategic areas.

But there seemed nothing like the tens of thousands that he has been able to muster in the past to cause widespread mob violence and, though Gbagbo’s camp has been handing out automatic weapons to them in recent days, many seemed armed with little more than machetes, sticks or tree branches.

REBEL DIVISIONS?

Forces supporting Ouattara, recognised as president by African nations and Western powers, marched into Abidjan on Thursday after a swift push south meeting with scant resistance.

But in sign divisions between different rebel factions might be compromising their fighting ability in Abidjan, a rebel source said forces commanded by Ouattara’s prime minister Guillaume Soro were failing to cooperate with the anti-Gbabgo insurgents who took over northern Abidjan a month ago.

The self-styled “Invisible Commandos” are lead by Ibrahim Coulibaly, a senior commander in the 2002-03 rebellion before he fell out bitterly with Soro, but it is his men who opened up Abidjan by chasing out Gbagbo’s troops from its north.

“The guy really wants to make a comeback,” Soro’s spokesman, Patrick Achi, said. “He has accused everyone of stealing his rebellion. Now he wants to be in the final count, but he’s small. Our forces are doing most of the fighting.”

United or not, the rebels now face Gbagbo’s most reliable fighters, the roughly 2,500-strong elite Republican Guard, clustered in the coastal city along with remaining regular army.

At least 500 Ouattara forces refuelled vehicles and regrouped at a service station two kilometres north of Abidjan.

Gbagbo has been hit by a number of high-level defections in the military since pro-Ouattara forces marched on Abidjan.

The African Union, former colonial ruler France, the U.S and U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon all have called on Gbagbo to step down.

The power struggle pushed cocoa prices to record highs, but they have tumbled since on expectations exports will resume.

Ivory Coast’s $2.3 billion 2032 bond, on which it defaulted in January, extended gains on Friday, rising more than 3 points to a 3-1/2-month high. (Additional reporting by Loucoumane Coulibaly in Abidjan, Mark John outside the city, and Richard Valdmanis in Dakar; Writing by Tim Cocks and Richard Valdmanis; Editing by Matthew Jones)

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