- Associated Press - Thursday, December 16, 2010

ABIDJAN, Ivory Coast | Gunfire and explosions shook Ivory Coast’s main city Thursday as supporters and security forces loyal to the two men claiming to be president clashed, killing at least 15 people amid fears the violence could push the country toward another civil war.

One errant rocket-propelled grenade struck an outer perimeter wall of the U.S. Embassy in Abidjan during the clashes, but no injuries were reported and the damage was minor, according to two U.S. State Department officials in Washington. They spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly.

At least 15 people were killed in the violence, said Traore Drissa, a prominent lawyer who runs the Abidjan-based Ivorian Movement for Human Rights. Senior opposition official Amadou Coulibaly put the toll at 18 dead, but the figure could not be immediately confirmed, and police could not be reached for comment.

The bloodshed across Abidjan is part of a risky push to take control of state institutions by Alassane Ouattara, the widely recognized winner of an election that millions once hoped would reunite the West African nation.

Long streams of light and heavy machine-gunfire and unexplained explosions were audible for 30 to 45 minutes in the streets outside the U.N.-protected Golf Hotel, where Mr. Ouattara has attempted to govern while incumbent Laurent Gbagbo rules from the presidential palace.

The exchange of fire erupted when rebel troops - who control the north of the country and are helping guard Mr. Ouattara - tried to remove makeshift roadblocks on streets near the hotel, Ouattara communications adviser Massere Toure told the Associated Press. She said government forces wounded three rebels. Both the army and police declined to comment on the fighting.

The violence brought skyscraper-lined Abidjan to a standstill. Businesses were closed, and fearful residents stayed home. City streets were deserted except for soldiers and police, who also used batons to beat back demonstrators, some of whom hurled stones from rooftops at security forces.

Ivory Coast has been operating with two presidents and two governments since a disputed Nov. 28 runoff. Mr. Ouattara was declared the winner by the country’s electoral commission, but the next day, the constitutional council overturned those results after invalidating a half-million votes from Ouattara strongholds.

The dispute has raised fears of renewed unrest in the world’s largest cocoa producer, which is struggling to recover from the 2002-2003 civil war, which divided the country in two. Mr. Ouattara draws much of his support from the country’s rebel-held north, while Mr. Gbagbo’s power base is in the south.

On Friday, Mr. Ouattara plans a second march to take back other government buildings and hold a Cabinet meeting.

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