Ivory Coast rivals on collision course

Abidjan, Ivory Coast – The two leaders battling for power in Ivory Coast were on a collision course today, a day after troops loyal to Laurent Gbagbo deployed around his enemy Alassane Ouattara’s headquarters.

Ouattara’s supporters were undaunted, and vowed to take over government headquarters in Abidjan and to hold a cabinet meeting there by Friday, and EU ministers agreed sanctions against Gbagbo and his supporters.

Gbagbo and Ouattara both declared themselves president in the wake of last month’s disputed election. Ouattara has been recognised by the international community, but Ivorian army chiefs continue to back Gbagbo.

Yesterday, the isolated but defiant incumbent had deployed troops and gendarmes on access routes to Ouattara’s United Nations-protected waterfront base, in the Golf Hotel in a plush suburb on the shores of Abidjan’s lagoon.

Pro-Gbagbo security forces blocked roads to the hotel from around midday until nightfall, then fell back into more discreet positions to monitor the situation, while allowing traffic to pass, witnesses and soldiers said.

Former rebel fighters from the New Forces (FN) armed with assault rifles and rocket-propelled grenades had earlier taken up defensive positions around the waterfront hotel, alongside armed UN peacekeepers.

This morning, there were two security force checkpoints filtering traffic running past the hotel, manned by troops from pro-Gbagbo forces and from the UN peacekeeping force. There was no sign of armed FN troops.

A dozen white-painted UN armoured cars protected the hotel.

A 10.00pm to 5.00am curfew remained in place yesterday, state television said, and was prolonged from today for at least another week while being reduced in duration to the hours between midnight and 5.00am.

Ouattara’s prime minister, former rebel leader Guillaume Soro, on yesterday announced a plan to take control of state television headquarters by Thursday and the prime minister’s offices in time for a cabinet meeting on Friday.

It was not immediately clear whether he was prepared to use force to push this plan through if Gbagbo resists.

In New York, UN spokesperson Martin Nesirky told reporters: “The mission reports that the situation at the Gulf Hotel remains tense. Armed elements from both camps were observed reinforcing positions and the mission continues to provide security around the hotel.

“The mission is under orders to protect Mr Ouattara’s administration and that is in accordance with the mandate that the mission has.”

The 65-year-old Gbagbo occupies the presidential palace and his ministers appear to exercise control over their departments, while Ouattara is trying to control the levers of state from his heavily defended golf resort.

Gbagbo has appointed his own ministers and insists he is the constitutional president, despite the UN Security Council calling on him to step down.

The November 28 presidential run-off election was supposed to mark a turning point in Ivory Coast’s decade-long crisis and restore constitutional rule to a country divided into rival northern and southern armed camps.

Instead it has deepened divisions, with Gbagbo retaining most military, economic and administrative levers of state, while Ouattara has donned the mantle of international legitimacy.

European Union foreign ministers decided to impose “a visa ban and an assets freeze” against Gbagbo’s supporters, a statement said.

The 27 members agreed “targeted restrictive measures against those who are obstructing the process of peace and national reconciliation, and in particular who are jeopardising the proper outcome of the electoral process.

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