ABIDJAN (Reuters) - Soldiers loyal to Ivory Coast’s rival presidential claimants Laurent Gbagbo and Alassane Ouattara fought gun battles on Thursday, escalating a poll row and fears of a renewed civil war in the West African state.
Gbagbo’s government spokeswoman said at least 20 people were killed in anti-Gbagbo street protests in the main city of Abidjan, 10 of them demonstrators and 10 security forces.
Ouattara’s rival government said security forces had killed 14 protestors when they opened fire on them.
Pro-Ouattara rebels and government forces also exchanged fire in Abidjan and for hours in Tiebissou, the central town marking the line between the rebel-held north and government-held south after a 2002-3 war, witnesses said.
“I saw four killed and many wounded. They fired guns to push us back when we tried to march down the street,” one protester said of live rounds fired by the military at a crowd marching to the state TV building.
Heavy weapons fire rang out around the lagoon-side hotel where Ouattara and his allies set up a parallel administration as a tense days-long stand-off with pro-Gbagbo forces deployed outside turned into a gun battle.
“There is shooting all over the place. There is artillery. There are explosions. It is all coming from the direction of the Golf Hotel,” one witness said.
The violence in the world’s top cocoa grower comes after incumbent Gbagbo claimed victory in a November 28 poll meant to reunify the country, rejecting as fraudulent results from the electoral commission showing a Ouattara win.
The United Nations, the United States, African countries and former colonial ruler France have recognised Ouattara as president-elect, despite a ruling by Ivory Coast’s top legal body upholding Gbagbo’s claims of fraud and giving him the win.
A spokesman for Ouattara’s camp said his supporters would take to the streets of Abidjan again on Friday in an effort to take control of the state broadcasting building, despite Thursday’s failed attempt and the violence that came with it.
“We will continue to march,” Patrick Achi said by telephone.
The success of Gbagbo’s forces in repelling the march on state TV and radio seems to have given him the upper hand in the power struggle, although a U.S. official in Washington said they had told him he had “a finite amount of time” make the right decision and step down.
The EU agreed on Monday to impose visa bans and asset freezes on Gbagbo and his supporters. But EU diplomats said France was pressing other EU states to exclude him from punitive measures for the time being.
Fear of a disruption to supplies in the world’s top cocoa grower pushed futures prices close to four-month highs reached last week. May cocoa on Liffe rose 2 pounds or 0.1 percent to 2,014 pounds ($3,142) a tonne. A spokesman for the pro-Ouattara New Forces rebels said there had been two deaths on their side in the gun battle near Abidjan’s Golf Hotel, where Ouattara is under protection of U.N. peacekeepers. The army has confirmed only two wounded.
The U.S. Embassy in Abidjan was hit by an errant rocket-propelled grenade during the protests, a State Department spokesman said in Washington.
“Both the pro-Gbagbo FDS (security forces), and the pro-Ouattara former rebel New Forces (FN), appear battle-ready, and it would take very little to spark all-out confrontation,” said Rolake Akinola, Africa analyst for VoxFrontier Consulting.
U.N. helicopters flew over the city as the shooting erupted. The United Nations has about 10,000 soldiers and police in the country. The force has a mandate to protect civilians but said its job was not to protect the march.
In the Nigerian capital Abuja, a top-level African Union delegation met Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan, current chief of the West African bloc ECOWAS, to discuss the crisis.
A statement issued afterwards reaffirmed the backing of both bodies for Ouattara and said the AU had agreed with the ECOWAS view that a power-sharing deal similar that reached by Kenya after disputed 2007 elections would not be acceptable.
Election commission results showed Ouattara won last month’s election. But the pro-Gbagbo Constitutional Council scrapped nearly half a million votes in Ouattara bastions to hand victory to Gbagbo on grounds of fraud, causing international outrage.
“Some of this might be sending messages,” one Abidjan-based diplomat said. “The key will be whether they call off tomorrow’s demonstration. It is not tenable.”
Reporting by Loucoumane Coulibaly in Abidjan, Joe Brock in Abuja, Richard Valdmanis and David Lewis in Dakar; Charles Bamba in Tiebissou, writing by Mark John and Richard Valdmanis; editing by Michael Roddy