ABIDJAN (Reuters) - Forces loyal to Laurent Gbagbo, besieged in Ivory Coast’s main city, have retaken ground and are edging closer to where rival presidential claimant Alassane Ouattara is holed up, the United Nations said.
U.N. peacekeeping chief Alain Le Roy told reporters on Friday that Gbagbo forces had used a lull in fighting for peace talks as a ruse to reinforce their positions.
“We understand that since that time, the forces of Mr. Gbagbo ... have regained terrain and they have full control of the Plateau and Cocody area,” Le Roy said, referring to districts of the commercial capital Abidjan where his residence and diplomats’ homes are located.
Abidjan was a ghost town on Saturday morning. A Reuters witness in the northern district of Gesco said the few people in the streets were seeking food and water or trying to escape before fighting resumed.
France, the former colonial power in Ivory Coast, said Gbagbo’s forces had fired at the residence of the French ambassador late on Friday, and that French helicopters later fired on Gbagbo forces during a failed evacuation mission.
“The French (ambassador’s) residence was attacked yesterday afternoon with two mortar shots and one rocket shot that clearly came from pro-Gbagbo forces,” said French armed forces spokesman Thierry Burkhard.
“Later in the night ... Licorne (French) forces launched an operation at the request of an ally government to help a diplomatic mission. Under fire from pro-Gbagbo forces, Licorne riposted, destroying at least one armoured vehicle in the embassy belt,” said Burkhard.
Gbagbo, who has refused to cede power to Ouattara despite U.N.-certified results showing he lost a November election, remains isolated in the bunker under his residence where he has sought refuge from a concerted assault by Ouattara’s troops.
Only three days ago, his defeat had appeared imminent and talks took place between the two sides. Le Roy said on Friday fighting was still going on but there was a stalemate.
“We have seen heavy weapons to be transferred to the Cocody area,” he said. Gbagbo adviser Toussaint Alain denied the French ambassador’s residence had been attacked. “France is just looking for a pretext to get rid of President Laurent Gbagbo,” Alain told Reuters in Paris.
In another sign of Gbagbo regaining influence, his RTI television, silent since fierce fighting broke out in Abidjan this week, came back on air broadcasting an appeal for support.
“The regime of Gbagbo is still in place, a strong mobilisation is required by the population,” it said.
Gbagbo, who has ruled Ivory Coast since 2000, is defended by around 1,000 men — his presidential guard and youth militiamen, but Ouattara allies say he has also armed civilians.
Ouattara has based himself in the Golf Hotel since the November 28, 2010 election, which was meant to draw a line under a 2002-3 civil war which split the world’s top cocoa producer in two.
Le Roy said Gbagbo forces were edging towards the building, which has been under U.N. guard. “While we speak they may be very close to the Golf Hotel,” he said.
Frederick Daguillon, spokesman for the French force in Ivory Coast, said military efforts to evacuate diplomatic staff from an unidentified country were cancelled due to the heavy presence of Gbagbo forces.
“The commander of the force judged that the conditions were not right to extract these people,” he said.
Residents in Abidjan said later the situation was now quiet.
“Yesterday (pro-Gbagbo) militia men came to our house, we were threatened,” said Jean Kima, a man from Burkina Faso living in Abidjan with his family. “We are trying to get out, to Bouake. The militia could come back at any moment and perhaps the worst will happen next time.”
Ouattara’s ability to unify the West African state may be undermined by reports of atrocities since his forces — a collection of former rebels from the north — swept south into Abidjan more than a week ago.
The United Nations human rights office said on Friday it had found 115 corpses in the west in the past 24 hours, adding to the 800 dead reported by aid groups last week. Some were burned alive and others thrown into wells, in a chilling reminder of the ethnic and religious divisions gripping the country.
Ouattara’s forces have denied carrying out massacres. But human rights groups say there is evidence that while Gbagbo’s forces committed the bulk of the atrocities since the stand-off began four months ago, Ouattara’s soldiers are also to blame for indiscriminate violence against civilians.
New York-based Human Rights Watch said forces loyal to Ouattara killed hundreds of civilians, raped more than 20 suspected supporters of Gbagbo and burned at least 10 villages in the country’s far western region as they advanced in March.
Gbagbo forces killed more than 100 presumed Ouattara backers during the same period, the rights group said.
U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay said the crimes committed throughout the conflict may amount to crimes against humanity, welcoming Ouattara’s commitment to call on his supporters to refrain from violence and establish a Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
Ouattara has also vowed to restore security and revive Ivory Coast’s cocoa sector, the country’s main economic engine, which has been paralysed by EU shipping restrictions since January.
At his request, the European Union eased on Friday sanctions on four entities, including the ports of Abidjan and San Pedro.
A week of fighting has turned Abidjan — long known as the ‘Paris of West Africa’ - into a war zone, driving terrified residents to scramble to find food and water, with frequent power cuts and hospitals overwhelmed with wounded.
Aid workers estimate 1 million people have been displaced by the fighting, and some 150,000 people have fled the country.