ABIDJAN (Reuters) - Thousands of youth supporters of Ivory Coast’s Laurent Gbagbo gathered around his presidential palace on Saturday in a show of support, as days of fierce fighting between his security forces and insurgents continued.
A Reuters reporter heard sporadic machinegun fire and explosions throughout the day coming from the direction of the leafy suburb of Angre, where insurgents have penetrated after taking control of Abidjan’s vast northern Abobo suburb.
Up to one million Ivorians have now fled fighting in the main city Abidjan alone, with others uprooted across the country, the U.N. refugee agency said on Friday.
Ivory Coast has descended to the verge of civil war following a disputed election in November last year which Gbagbo’s rival Alassane Ouattara won, according to U.N. certified results that Gbagbo has refused to concede, claiming the results were rigged. World powers have backed Ouattara.
The violent stand-off has led to 462 confirmed deaths.
Dancing to loud Ivorian Zouglou pop music through loudspeakers, about 15,000 of Gbagbo’s “Young patriots” gathered in the main square outside the presidency, wrapping themselves in orange, green and white Ivorian flags.
“We are going to show our spirit of peace,” said Gbagbo’s youth leader Charles Ble Goude, who is under U.N. sanctions for allegedly inciting violence. “We want dialogue.”
On Monday, even more pro-Gbagbo youths turned up at his army headquarters to enlist for the army, raising fears Ivory Coast’s slide into all-out civil war is now unstoppable.
“Not France, not the United Nations, not anyone can come and impose a president on us,” said Emile Kodja, 31, a mechanic, reflecting claims by state TV that former colonial master France, African leaders and world powers back Ouattara because he is their stooge, not because he won the election.
Ivory Coast’s neighbours called this week for the mandate of the 12,000-strong U.N. peacekeeping mission to be strengthened so it can more robustly prevent civilian deaths, as the mission comes under increasing pressure to do more to protect civilians.
Reuters TV images showed the aftermath of days of heavy fighting in the northern Abidjan suburb of Abobo, which has been in the hands of anti-Gbagbo insurgents for more than a month, who however do not claim allegiance to Ouattara either.
Buildings were pocked marked with bullet holes and grenade craters, some walls were collapsed from heavy weapons fire and burnt out vehicles littered the street.
The United Nations has accused pro-Gbagbo forces of indiscriminately shelling civilian areas, a charge they deny.
France has drafted a U.N. Security Council resolution to ban the use of heavy weapons in Abidjan.
A jubilant population danced around an armoured vehicle the insurgents said they destroyed during heavy fighting on Friday.
“I don’t care if they send 100 tanks, we’ll still fight them,” shouted a Ouattara supporter pointing to the remains.