- Associated Press - Tuesday, January 11, 2011

ABIDJAN, Ivory Coast (AP) — Security forces loyal to Ivory Coast’s incumbent leader, who refuses to cede power, on Tuesday fired volleys of gunshots, leaving at least four people dead after they cordoned off a large section of a neighborhood known to be his rival’s stronghold.

United Nations peacekeepers arriving in a convoy of 13 vehicles were forced by a mob to make a U-turn as they attempted to enter the area. Young men allied with incumbent Laurent Gbagbo amassed on the highway, wielding sticks and throwing large objects in their path.

PK 18, where the early morning raid occurred, is part of Abobo, an Abidjan district that supported Alassane Ouattara, who won the Nov. 28 election with a margin of over half a million votes, according to results verified by the United Nations.

He has been recognized as the president-elect by the U.N., the European Union, the African Union and the United States, but international pressure has not been able to dislodge the 65-year-old Mr. Gbagbo. He accuses the U.N. of bias after it endorsed Mr. Ouattara’s victory and is refusing to leave office. A militant youth group allied with Mr. Gbagbo has been organizing daily rallies — including one planned for Tuesday near PK 18 — to warn the international community against interfering in Ivory Coast.

Residents and the mayor of the area say police awoke them between 4 and 5 a.m. and began conducting house-to-house searches accusing them of hiding arms. The residents retaliated by killing two policemen, said Marco Boubacar, who heads the local unit of the New Forces, a rebel group allied with Mr. Ouattara. The deaths could not immediately be verified.

He spoke while standing on the bridge leading into PK 18 holding a long kitchen knife, as large police trucks drove into the area, loaded with policemen and helmeted soldiers. Shots could be heard at intervals for at least the next 20 minutes.

Reporters able to enter the area after calm returned found four bodies lying on the ground, all dressed in civilian clothes. They appeared to have been shot.

When the United Nations responded several hours later, their convoy including two large armored personnel carriers got only as far as the roundabout of Abobo, about 1 mile from the affected area.

Human rights groups have criticized the U.N. for bowing to Mr. Gbagbo’s security forces and allowing abuses to occur under their watch. The head of the U.N. human rights section received reports of two mass graves containing as many as 80 bodies of people shot or killed after the election, but his convoy was turned back at gunpoint when he tried to enter one of the sites in a suburb of Abidjan.

U.N. patrols have been intimidated and forced to retreat on other occasions, including an incident last month in which ruling party loyalists torched a U.N. vehicle. State TV controlled by Mr. Gbagbo has shown footage of U.N. convoys stopped in front of crowds, or made to turn around, reasserting an image of U.N. powerlessness.

Last month, a bloc of neighboring nations began mulling a military ouster to force Mr. Gbagbo out. In recent days as the threat of military action has become more real, a militant youth group allied with Mr. Gbagbo began leading daily rallies to warn the international community against interfering in Ivory Coast.

The U.N. was invited to observe the election and to certify the results following a 2005 peace deal signed by all political parties after a civil war. The certification was intended to create an independent mechanism to ascertain the winner and prevent fraud. Both Mr. Gbagbo and Mr. Ouattara signed the accord, but Mr. Gbagbo has since discounted the international body’s findings and has called on the 9,000-strong peacekeeping mission to leave the country.

After three high-level delegations of African leaders failed to persuade Mr. Gbagbo to cede power, the 15-member Economic Community of West African States last month warned they were considering an armed intervention.

The move is controversial, though, because Ivory Coast has been a magnet for immigrants from other African nations including Nigeria, where troops would likely come from. And the Gbagbo regime has insinuated that any military action would lead to reprisal attacks against immigrants from the countries sending soldiers.

Experts say the risk of a return to civil war is real because Mr. Gbagbo is backed by the hard-line Young Patriots, a group led by Charles Ble Goude, who was placed on a 2006 United Nations sanctions list for his role in inciting violence.

Mr. Goude has been leading rallies almost every day — including one planned for Tuesday, but which was canceled just before it was to start because of tension in Abobo. He has warned there will be no peace if Mr. Gbagbo is forced out.

“They shouldn’t kid themselves and imagine that they can come and remove him … Because in every Ivorian there is a Gbagbo,” Mr. Goude told the Associated Press in a Monday interview. “Do they want to govern an IvoryCoast cemetery?”

Already at least 25,000 civilians have already crossed the border into neighboring Liberia in anticipation of possible clashes.

Adrian Edwards, a spokesman for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, told reporters in Geneva that 600 more are arriving in Liberia daily and are being housed in a teeming refugee camp.

Associated Press photographer Rebecca Blackwell in Abidjan, Ivory Coast and writer Frank Jordans in Geneva contributed to this report.