Ivory Coast braces for violence in the wake of protest deaths

2010-12-17 12:00

Ivory Coast braced itself for more violence today after at least 20 people were killed in clashes between soldiers loyal to incumbent president Laurent Gbagbo and supporters of his rival for the presidency, Alassane Ouattara.

Gbagbo is clinging on to power despite international recognition of Ouattara as the winner of last month’s polls.

It had been hoped that the elections would end a decade of political and civil crisis, and set the world’s largest cocoa grower on the road to economic recovery.

Instead, the election has threatened to plunge the West African nation back into civil war.

On Thursday soldiers opened fire on protesters in the economic capital, Abidjan. The protesters were trying to take control of state television, which is still under Gbagbo’s control.

“In total, today’s march unfortunately caused 20 deaths, of which 10 were demonstrators and 10 were agents of the forces of order,” Jacqueline Lohoues-Oble, spokesperson for Gbagbo’s government, said in a statement broadcast on state-owned RTI late yesterday.

Ouattara’s party said at least 30 protesters were killed.

Gun battles also broke out around the Golf Hotel, from where Ouattara is trying to run his alternative government with heavily armed security from former northern rebels, New Forces.

Guillaume Soro, Ouattara’s prime minister and leader of New Forces, said one person was killed and two seriously injured when New Forces soldiers came under fire.

The Golf Hotel was being protected by some of the 10?000 UN peacekeepers in Ivory Coast. The UN peacekeepers were not involved in the fighting.

More protests were expected today as Soro called on people to continue trying to take the television station.

“The prime minister calls on the population to mobilise and reclaim freedom of information from the state media,” said a statement from New Forces.

Gbagbo’s regime has cut off the signals of all foreign television stations, leaving RTI as the main source of news.

UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon has warned of a possible return to civil war, while Luis Moreno-Ocampo, the chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, warned he would instigate prosecutions against perpetrators of violence.

Pressure is growing on Gbagbo as normally more circumspect African bodies such as the African Union and Economic Community of West African States add their voices to international calls for him to stand down.

The European Union is considering asset freezes and visa bans on 11 key Gbagbo allies, including Paul Yao N’Dre, the head of the constitutional council, which overturned electoral commission results handing Ouattara victory.

Ivory Coast was plunged into war between the mainly Muslim north and Christian south in 2002 when Gbagbo, who came to power in the wake of violent demonstrations at the 2000 presidential elections, survived a coup attempt.

A 2007 peace deal brought the northern rebels into government, but the north-south divisions have never gone away.

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