- Associated Press - Thursday, December 16, 2010

ABIDJAN, Ivory Coast (AP) — 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 up to 18 people amid fears the violence could push the country toward another civil war.

The toll of 18 dead cited by senior opposition official Amadou Coulibaly could not be immediately confirmed, and police could not be reached for comment. An Associated Press reporter saw at least three bodies in one neighborhood.

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-gun fire 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.

Elsewhere, riot police fired tear gas and live rounds to disperse gathering protesters in multiple parts of the city. In the Abobo neighborhood, an Associated Press photographer saw the bodies of three men lying in the street who several witnesses said had been shot by police. One was shot in the head, two others in the chest. Several more were wounded during midmorning clashes elsewhere, according to AP reporters on the scene.

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 2002-03 civil war that 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.

“The next two days will determine everything. It’s all or nothing,” said Jean-Claude N’dri, a cable television salesman in Treichville neighborhood, where riot police and soldiers loyal to Mr. Gbagbo fired tear gas to disperse one group of about 500 people. Streets there filled with hazy clouds of smoke as gas canisters burned.

Similar violence broke out in the city’s Koumassi district. And outside the opposition coalition headquarters, police in armored vehicles fired into another hundreds-strong crowd of demonstrators, wounding three people, said Michel Bazia, a civil servant who lives in the neighborhood.

Mr. Ouattara — whose election victory has been acknowledged by the United Nations, the United States, France and the African Union — has called on his backers to help him take control of state institutions. On Thursday they vowed to march to the national television station to install a new state television chief, but they did not get close.

The two stations broadcasting from the building are the only Ivorian broadcasters in the country and they provide a powerful voice for the person controlling them. In the days after the United Nations said the incumbent, Mr. Gbagbo lost, people watching Gbagbo-controlled state TV saw only the announcement of his victory.

The TV building is being heavily protected by Mr. Gbagbo’s troops, and police and soldiers sealed off streets around it Thursday, blocking them with makeshift roadblocks made of wooden tables and benches. Two armored personnel carriers filled with helmeted troops were parked nearby.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has warned the politically charged environment could spark a new civil war. Others have urged restraint.

“The risk for yet more bloodshed and senseless loss of life … is extremely high,” said Corinne Dufka, a senior researcher for Human Rights Watch, based in Dakar, Senegal. “All those concerned must do all they can to prevent this scenario — soldiers and police must be given explicit orders to use restraint and minimum use of force, and the U.N. must stand ready to fulfill their mandate to protect those being threatened with violence.”

Associated Press writer Todd Pitman contributed to this report from Dakar, Senegal.

 

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