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Violence in Ivory Coast spirals as mediation talks fail

The protests in the Arab world are pushing the crisis in Ivory Coast out of the international focus. But the turmoil there is escalating. Thousands are on the run and the UN Security Council is warning of a civil war.

Supporters of Alassane Ouattara on the street

Ouattara supporters hail the alleged burning of three pro-Gbagbo soldiers in Abobo

Ivory Coast's incumbent leader Laurent Gbagbo will not accept an African Union (AU) scheme to step down and cede power to the country's internationally recognized president, Alassane Ouattara.

"We think this is an unacceptable proposal," said former prime minister Pascal Affi N'Guessan, who chairs Gbagbo's Ivorian Popular Front and is part of the delegation he sent to the mediation talks at AU headquarters in Addis Ababa. AU representatives met in the Ethiopian capital on Thursday to try to end the increasingly bloody dispute over the Ivory Coast presidency. Gbagbo himself snubbed the meeting, while his opponent Ouattara - the winner of the disputed November polls who has been living under UN protection in a hotel in Abidjan since December - attended.

"The panel made a proposal we categorically reject," N'Guessan told reporters. "This proposal brought nothing to the table that we did not already know."

The AU endorsed Ouattara as president-elect and recommended the formation of a government involving all political parties and civil society, while ensuring "all the necessary guarantees" for Gbagbo when he steps down. Ouattara said the AU decision allowed him to choose "competent people from other parties for the process of reconciliation."

But N'Guessan and Gbagbo's foreign minister, Alcide Djedje, who also attended, said the election results had been flawed.

"We will never accept if the proposal is for President Gbagbo to step down because he is the elected leader of Cote d'Ivoire," Djedje said. "We just want President Gbagbo to be president because he has been elected according to the laws in the country. This is our stance."

International sanctions and previous mediation efforts have failed to budge Gbagbo.

Violence escalating

Gbagbo and Ouattara

Gbagbo, left, refuses to hand over power to Ouattara

The West African country, meanwhile, is edging ever closer to civil war. According to media reports, at least four more people were killed on Tuesday at a protest against Gbagbo in the economic capital Abidjan.

The deaths in Abidjan occurred at a march protesting the killing of six unarmed women during a similar event last week. Hundreds of women in colorful clothing had taken to the streets in the pro-Ouattara slum of Abobo to show their support for their president. But the demonstration was brutally struck down by soldiers loyal to Gbagbo.

"Our women just wanted to demonstrate peacefully," one eyewitness said. "Of course, they weren't armed. And then all of sudden, these armed vehicles appeared and Gbagbo's people started shooting all over the place."

Despite a video published by news agency AP clearly showing tanks of the pro-Gbagbo army quickly leaving the scene of the crime, the former president denies that his people were responsible for last week's massacre. Rather, he blames the UN peacekeeping mission in Ivory Coast for "infiltrating" the country with "terrorists." They are responsible for these women's deaths, he claimed.

US President Barack Obama sharply condemned the "abhorrent" violence. In a statement on Wednesday, Obama said he was appalled by the "indiscriminate killing" of unarmed civilians.

"Former President Gbagbo's efforts to hold on to power at the expense of his own country are an assault on the universal rights of his people, and the democracy that the Cote d'Ivoire deserves," Obama said.

Facilitating humanitarian aid

The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay warned on Thursday that human rights violations against civilians in Ivory Coast were escalating at both the individual and collective levels. According to investigations conducted by UN human rights officers in the country, at least 392 people have been killed there since mid-December, including at least 27 in just the past week.

"Overall, the situation appears to be deteriorating alarmingly, with a sharp increase in inter-communal and inter-ethnic confrontations," Pillay said in a statement. "Human rights abuses, including rapes, abductions and killings are being committed by people supporting both sides."

The United Nations refugee agency has appealed to the rival groups to support efforts to deliver urgently needed humanitarian aid to those affected by the post-election turmoil and avoid putting civilians at risk.

children in abidjan wait for food

Thousands of children have been displaced with their families due to the fighting

According to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the unrest in the West African country has displaced between 200,000 and 300,000 people in Abidjan. Another 70,000 inhabitants of the country's western region have fled their homes and crossed over into neighboring Liberia as a result of violence.

Hamadoun Touré, spokesman for the UN peacekeeping mission, said the situation was very dangerous for humanitarian aid workers who are trying to help with the dead and injured.

"That's why we've been calling for a truce in Abobo, so that humanitarian workers can get in, take the bodies, maybe even have a burial or find a morgue for them," Touré said.

In Abobo, Gbagbo's soldiers are fighting against pro-Ouattara insurgents, who call themselves the "invisible commandos." Gbagbo's feared Young Patriots militia group - many armed with AK-47s, machetes and knives - have set up roadblocks. Every day, there are dead and injured, most of them civilians. Hawa, who heads an NGO and does not want to disclose her last name for security reasons, said the people will not back down, though.

"Gbago, leave, the women yelled at that protest. But we've been demanding that for far too long," Hawa said. "I don't know what the international community is actually still waiting for. Should there be more dead, more atrocities? Day in, day out, it's the same horrible picture. And because nothing is happening, we're going to continue marching!"

More fighting expected

Apparently, both sides are currently rearming with outside help to be ready when the real fighting begins. Gbagbo doesn't appear to be running out of money, despite the ban on cocoa exports and despite international sanctions.

On the other side, the pro-Ouattara rebels in the north, the Forces Nouvelles or New Forces, are getting ready to fight. They have already captured areas in the western part of the country. It is already evident now what a civil war would mean for the country, said Ouanmourou Koné from the University of Bouaké, the rebel stronghold in the north. He said there is no water or electricity in the city.

"It's incredible what world we are living in," he said. "It is desperation. There is no life in Bouaké now. I don't understand how they want us to live here. It's terrible. That's why I say politicians are not human beings. Those politicians should all go to hell! That's what they deserve."

It could be the beginning of the civil war that international observers have warned of for months already. It was over three months ago that Ivory Coast wanted to elect a new president and end the more than 10-year political chaos in the country. But the crisis is escalating further.

It seems that the power struggle that has been smoldering between Gbagbo and Ouattara for months now has in fact reached the point where it could revert to war at any moment. Meanwhile, the entire world has its eyes on Libya while the bloodshed continues - in Abobo and soon maybe in the rest of Ivory Coast.

Author: Alexander Göbel, Sabina Casagrande (AFP, Reuters, dpa)
Editor: Rob Mudge

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