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World

Ivory Coast steers toward civil war

While the world is focusing on Japan and Libya, the situation in Ivory Coast is escalating further. Some observers already call it a civil war and doubt that diplomacy stands a chance of solving the smoldering conflict.

children watch an armed rebel go by

Militia groups are taking control of the streets

Forces loyal to Ivory Coast's internationally recognized president Alassane Ouattara have seized two major towns in the western cocoa belt in an offensive that is also picking up momentum in the east of the country, news agencies reported on Tuesday.

The United Nations said the fighting was leading to more refugee outflows as people flee for their lives. The UN peacekeeping operation in Ivory Coast, UNOCI, said supporters of former president Laurent Gbagbo had also opened fire on civilians in Abidjan on Monday, killing about 10 of them.

UNOCI itself is also being targeted. One of the mission's helicopters was shot at during a reconnaissance flight above the western town of Duekoue. It called on the country to resolve the conflict.

"UNOCI reiterates its total military impartiality and exhorts, once again, all parties to quickly find a definitive solution to the post-electoral crisis to end the suffering of the Ivorian people," the mission said in a statement.

But Gbagbo continues to refuse to cede power to Ouattara, who is governing out of a hotel, protected by UN soldiers, since he was elected in November. US president Barack Obama said that Ivory Coast was at a crossroads.

"Two paths lay ahead," Obama said in a video message to the country last Friday. "One path is where Laurent Gbagbo and his supporters cling to power, which will only lead to more violence, more innocent civilians being wounded and killed and more diplomatic and economic isolation. Or Cote D'Ivoire can take another path: where Gbagbo follows the example of leaders who reject violence and abide by the will of the people."

Fighting to the bitter end

The calls by the international community for the two sides to resolve the conflict are not being heard. Growing number of Gbagbo's supporters are taking up arms in order to fight rebels and militia supporting Ouattara. Charles Ble Goude, Gbagbo's youth minister and leader of the militant "Young Patriots," has called on the country's young men to enlist in the army and thousands have followed his appeal.

refugees alongside the road

People fear for their safety in the Abobo district

Even though he is internationally isolated and slowly but surely his funds are running out, Gbagbo is still winning supporters. Young men such as Guillaume are heading to the army barracks to have their heads shaven and enlist.

"I'm patriotic and in view of the situation which our beloved fatherland is in, we have decided to rise like a man and fight the insurgence," Guillaume said.

UN forces belong to the enemy

Gbagbo himself remains stubborn and refuses to step down. In fact, the opposite is the case: his spokesman has announced that, in a pinch, Gbagbo will even face tanks with his bare hands.

His own tanks have already taken to the streets in the past weeks, mainly in the pro-Ouattara slum of Abobo outside of Abidjan. Ouattara's supporters have formed militia groups, which already control parts of Abobo. In the past few days, the area has virtually developed into a state of civil war. Stores are closed; there isn't enough food and medication. Thousands are fleeing.

The spokesman for the UN refugee agency UNHCR Jacques Franquin said an estimated 7,000 to 8,000 people have already fled Abidjan.

"They are trying to flee to their villages," Franquin told French broadcaster RFI. "It's difficult to get an idea of the situation because we have a lot of problems to move around safely. UN employees are perceived as enemies in this country."

The refugee agency has already had to cease its efforts in western parts of the country. The situation had become too dangerous.

Hardly anyone is hopeful anymore that diplomacy could lead to the end of this conflict. All mediation efforts by the African Union have failed. Ouattara is accusing the current top negotiator of partiality. But none of the neighboring countries currently want a military intervention like in Libya. So Ouattara is hoping that his opponent will soon run out of money - and friends. But that could take time. Ouattara is facing many more hotel nights - and the people of Abobo still weeks in a state of terror.

Author: Marc Dugge, Sabina Casagrande
Editor: Rob Mudge

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