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World's attention drifts as Ivory Coast nears civil war

The Ivory Coast is on the brink of civil war - a dire situation that has been largely overshadowed in headlines by events in Japan and Libya. As the death toll mounts, the international community remains largely inert.

Boy carrying belongings on his head as he walks out of Abidjan.

Fighting has sent a flood of refugees out of Abidjan

Once among the wealthiest West African nations, the Ivory Coast is falling into ruin as it edges closer to the brink of civil war. To date, some 400 people have died, and around 450,000 people have fled the country amid the spiralling violence.

The cause: an ongoing, bloody power struggle between ex-President Laurent Gbagbo - who has refused to step down since losing an election in late November, and his opponent, Alassane Ouattara, who has been acknowledged as president by the African Union and most of the West.

Elfenbeinküste Laurent Gbagbo

Incumbent Laurent Gbagbo refuses to leave

Yet the international community has so far failed to take strong action in the region, despite the fact that Ouattara asked the United Nations to provide "legitimate force" to protect civilians.

Society is breaking down

Meanwhile, the bloody struggle continues between Ouattara and Gbagbo - who has the backing of the Ivorian military. And the country is falling into ruin.

Despite the 10,000 blue-helmeted peacekeepers deployed by the UN in the region, no inroads toward peace have been made - on the contrary, killing is rampant and violent, and no one seems any the wiser on how to stop it.

Foreigners are busy making up their evacuation plans, the central bank was closed more than a month ago, schools have shut down, and the economy has all but collapsed. Hopes that Gbagbo would run out of money have evaporated, despite sanctions and frozen bank accounts - it seems states like Angola and Zimbabwe are willing to keep providing funding.

The African Union acknowledged Ouattara's victory in the elections and supports his government. And the organization of western African states, ECOWAS, is threatening a military invasion to get rid of Gbabo - but it's a threat that is hard to put into practice.

Blaming the victims

Ivory Coast has seen civil war very recently in its history and is still recovering four years after the last one ended, which left the country divided. For many, confrontations between the Ivory Coast Republican Army, which supports Ouattara, and Gbagbo's military troops awaken terrible memories of that time.

Yet Gbagbo refuses to step down, and his advisor Pascal N'Guessan, has gone so far as to blame the African Union for the fighting.

The union is "making the situation worse for the Ivory Coast. It is responsible for a possible civil war," he has said.

But is the civil war still to come? Or is it already underway? At some point, it's a matter of semantics, says Rinaldo Depagne from the International Crisis Group.

'When do you call it civil war?'

children lining up for food

The refugee situation is dire

"What does civil war mean - when does it start?" asks Depagne. "Don't the numbers speak for themselves?"

According to recent UN figures, 430 are dead - but Depagne says that number is probably much higher. And more than 450,000 have fled, including 90,000 to Liberia and 70,000 to Burkina Faso.

"Isn't that enough, to talk about a civil war already?" Depagne says. "The fighting in neighborhoods like Abobo or Yopougon reminds me of Bosnia, of Sarajevo. Shooting with mortars into markets, assuming there will be dead and injured - it is a war against the people."

Condemnation for shelling civilians

Indeed, the outcry was great after Gbagbo forces shot mortars into a crowded marketplace in the Abidjan suburb of Abobo last week, killing at least 25 and wounding 40. Earlier, in the same neighborhood, his forces shot and killed seven women who were part of a large, peaceful demonstration of women in support of Ouattara.

The UN condemned the mortar shelling, saying such an act "could constitute a crime against humanity."

Whether or not it is already technically a civil war, it is certainly a humanitarian catastrophe, Depagne adds. And, he insists, Gbagbo alone is to blame for the unrest. Depagne worries it could spread like a wildfire across the whole region.

In the capital, grizzly scenes are played out day by day. Dogs eat the bodies of those killed in the fight between the army, which supports Gbagbo, and the militias - including the Ivory Coast Republican Army, formerly known as the Forces Nouvelles. Both sides have been known to burn their opponents alive.

The situation has sent hundreds of thousands of people looking for safety. Bus stations in Abidjan are filled to bursting with people desperate to find a way out of the city, carrying stores of food, mattresses - and even refrigerators - with them.

In the northern area of Bouaké, one man emerged from a bus - weak and exhausted but alive - and reported that in Abidjan "there were three straight days of shooting, from tanks and guns. We couldn't take it any more."

Worried about mercenaries

Bouaké is the seat of the rebels of the Forces Nouvelles who have taken over five strategic cities in the west of the country, on the Libyan border.

They want to make sure that Gbagbo doesn't hire mercenaries from Libya to come and fight on his side, as was the case in the 2002 civil war.

In addition, they want to block Gbagbo's access to the port at San Pedro. They hope this would damage his ability to trade in cocoa - and stem the flow of money available to supply the military.

Republican Army Major Daounda Doumbia said he would negotiate with Gbagbo, "because we want peace. But if he doesn't comply, then we need to use violence," he said.

Author: Alexander Göbel (jen)
Editor: Rob Mudge

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