Standoff persists in I. Coast as humanitarian crisis deepens

AFP , Friday 8 Apr 2011

Ouattara forces block Gbagbo residence, humanitarian crisis worsens in wake of Ouattara forces' march to Abidjan

Ivory Coast
Soldiers loyal to Alassane Ouattara line up to be addressed by a commanding officer, at a republican forces operating base in the Youpougon neighborhood, on the outskirts of Abidjan, Ivory Coast, Friday, (AP).

Ivory Coast's UN-recognised president Alassane Ouattara enforced a blockade Friday around his rival Laurent Gbagbo's Abidjan residence, as the United Nations said it had found more than 100 bodies in the west of the country.

Reports of massacres in west Ivory Coast emerged as Ouattara's forces swept through the region on their way to confronting Gbagbo in the economic capital, where the humanitarian situation was dire Friday, with bodies lying on the streets and shortages of food, water and medicines.

"The human rights team investigating... in west Cote d'Ivoire found more than 100 bodies in the past 24 hours in three locations," Rupert Colville, spokesman for the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, said in Geneva.

"All the incidents appear to be ethnically motivated," he said, while adding added that "one has to be a little bit cautious of assigning responsibilities".

Ouattara promised in a televised address Thursday that "light will be shed" on reports of massacres and other crimes.

"The authors of the crimes will be punished," he said, calling on his troops "to be exemplary in their behaviour and to abstain from any crime, any violence against the population or any act of pillage."

Several hundred people were reportedly massacred in the western town of Duekoue last week, with forces loyal to Gbagbo and Ouattara blaming each other and the International Criminal Court in The Hague announcing a formal probe.

In Abidjan, residents reported gunfire and explosions. Gbagbo was still holding out in a bunker in the presidential residence after Ouattara's forces failed to remove him in an aborted assault on Wednesday.

French forces later bombarded Gbagbo's positions in a bid to destroy heavy weaponry, and a Western source said the aim was "to hit a maximum of objectives in order to reduce the potential for resistance".

"We have entered the post-Gbagbo era. The end is now in sight," French foreign ministry spokesman Bernard Valero told journalists in Paris. "The Gbagbo era is now over."

Valero said Foreign Minister Alain Juppe had spoken with Ouattara, the man deemed to have won a November presidential run-off.

In Washington US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and UN chief Ban Ki-moon issued an alert on a potential humanitarian crisis while denouncing attacks on UN peacekeepers.

Meanwhile the World Food Programme and other UN relief agencies on Friday called for humanitarian corridors to allow safe access to thousands of people who have fled the fighting.

Thursday, Ouattara went on television to announce the blockade and call on his troops to restore order in Abidjan, where roaming militia have been engaged in looting and random attacks.

"A blockade has been set up around (the) perimeter" of Gbagbo's residence to make the district safe for local residents, said Ouattara, claiming Gbagbo had "heavy weapons and mercenaries" at hand.

Addressing Ivorians for the first time since the post-election crisis came to a head, Ouattara appealed for national reconciliation and a resumption of economic activity in the world's leading cocoa producer.

"The curfew will be relaxed as from Friday April 8 to enable a progressive return to normality," he declared.

But Toussaint Alain, an aide to Gbagbo, dismissed the call for reconciliation, calling Ouattara an "imposter" and insisting Gbagbo would not step down.

UN Secretary General Ban urged Gbagbo to quit power before it was "too late" while the Ivory Coast ambassador to the UN said he would be taken and put on trial.

"Sooner or later he will be captured and brought to justice," Youssoufou Bamba told a press conference, insisting that Ouattara wants his rival taken alive despite Wednesday's offensive.

About 1,100 foreigners have been flown out of the commercial capital since Sunday, while 1,548 foreign citizens were being sheltered at the military base, a French force spokesman said.

Clinton and Ban meeting in Washington Thursday drew attention to a potential humanitarian crisis, urging "the international community to respond generously to the increasing humanitarian needs there," State Department spokesman Mark Toner said in a statement.

After calling for a ceasefire and retreating to the bunker with his wife Simone and a few others, Gbagbo insisted in a radio interview late Tuesday he would not accept he had lost the vote.

Gbagbo's forces number "fewer than 1,000, including 200 at his residence," French Defence Minister Gerard Longuet said.

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