- Associated Press - Wednesday, March 16, 2011

ABIDJAN, Ivory Coast | On a road that curves around a swath of vegetation at the far north of this commercial capital, cars leave territory controlled by strongman Laurent Gbagbo at a checkpoint consisting of a pile of logs.

Beyond it is the first barricade manned by gunmen loyal to the country’s internationally recognized president.

The line of control is slowly creeping south, toward the presidential palace Mr. Gbagbo refuses to let go.

It’s been more than 100 days since Mr. Gbagbo was declared the loser of this African country’s presidential election, and for most of that time the residents of the neighborhood called PK-18 waited for the international community to remove the defiant strongman, who first grabbed power a decade ago.

That didn’t happen, and two weeks ago, the face of the neighborhood began to change. Families streamed out, pulling suitcases on rollers behind them.

In their place arrived scruffy men. Some wore amulets around their necks and woolen head coverings, the traditional dress of the country’s northern rebels allied with Alassane Ouattara, the internationally recognized winner of the presidential election.

A team of Associated Press journalists was the first to enter PK-18 this month days after the insurgents had pushed out the army. The reporters crossed 11 checkpoints, some no farther than 100 feet apart.

The armed men and boys had set up sandbags at intersections and created roadblocks out of overturned furniture, discarded refrigerators, pieces of plywood and the smoldering shells of the military trucks they ambushed.

The army no longer dares enter PK-18, so named because it is exactly 18 kilometers, or K, from the upscale Plateau district, or P, where the white-walled presidency is located that the 65-year-old strongman continues to occupy.

Mr. Gbagbo still controls state organs including the ministries, the port and the military, but the capital itself is starting to slip through his fingers.

A senior diplomat described his armed opponents’ movement southward as “a slow creep.” U.N. Special Representative Choi Young-jin told reporters at a press conference last week: “We can confirm that the region under control by them is increasing.”

In the space of a week, the first checkpoint manned by the shadowy force has shifted south by at least the length of a soccer field. The insurgency is being organized from what the fighters say is a military base, believed to be a seized police installation. They say they are ready to take the presidential palace but are being held back by the man they are doing this for.

Sitafa Ouattara, the political officer of PK-18, told the Associated Press that Alassane Ouattara “doesn’t want war.”

Over the weekend, a large truck arrived in PK-18 loaded with bags of rice for the cut-off neighborhood. Those unloading the provisions said the truck had been sent by Alassane Ouattara’s wife. Mr. Ouattara himself is confined to a downtown hotel whose exits are blocked by Mr. Gbagbo’s soldiers.

Mr. Ouattara, a bookish 68-year-old, said through a spokesman that he has no contact with the armed force. Those close to him say this is because Mr. Ouattara does not want to be perceived as trying to take the country by force when he won the election.

Both the country’s electoral commission and the United Nations, which certified the results, called him the winner of the November runoff.

For his part, Mr. Gbagbo has shown he is willing to use violence to stay in office.

At the end of February, his army began using tanks, machine guns, rocket-propelled grenades and mortars against civilians in Abobo, a district of 1.7 million people where PK-18 is located. At least 250,000 people have fled the district and close to 400 have been killed, according to the United Nations.

Mr. Ouattara’s prime minister - Guillaume Soro, the former leader of the New Forces rebels that attempted to overthrow Mr. Gbagbo in 2002 - told the press in February that “the people of Ivory Coast need to do their own revolution” to “chase Gbagbo out.”

Soon after, a convoy of military vehicles was ambushed in PK-18.

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