Hundreds dead in Ivory Coast town as fighting rages on


A millitaman loyal to Alassane Ouattara walks along a street in Abidjan on April 1, 2011.


Issouf Sanogo

ABIDJAN, Ivory Coast — At least 800 people have been killed in a single outbreak of fighting in Ivory Coast, the Red Cross said as Laurent Gbagbo’s loyalists continued to fend off attacks by supporters of Alassane Ouattara’s rival claim to the presidency.

The International Committee of the Red Cross said the deaths occurred on Tuesday in the western town of Duekoue, where Red Cross representatives had witnessed “a very large number of bodies.”

"There is no doubt that something on a large scale took place in this city, on which the ICRC is continuing to gather information," a spokeswoman for the organization in Geneva, Dorothea Krimitsas, told AFP.

Ouattara's government said on Saturday that mass graves had been found in the country's west, accusing Gbagbo's supporters of the killings.

On Friday, forces loyal to Gbagbo — who refused to relinquish power after internationally recognized elections in November handed victory to Ouattara — continued to resist attacks from his rival’s supporters as fighting raged for hours in the economic capital Abidjan.

Clashes centered on Gbagbo's official residence, the presidential palace and the state television station, which ceased broadcasts after an attack Thursday but resumed airing pro-Gbagbo transmissions late Friday.

At the height of the fighting, explosions could be heard across the city as United Nations peacekeeping helicopters monitored the violence from overhead.

"We can hear shooting and see soldiers moving, but there are also armed civilians running in the street," Camara Arnold, who lives near the TV station, told Reuters.

In a speech on Friday, United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon repeated calls for Gbagbo to relinquish power, echoing demands from the African Union, the United States and former colonial ruler France.

"There has been too much bloodshed including hundreds of civilians killed or wounded," he told reporters in the Kenyan capital Nairobi.

"I renew my call on Mr. Gbagbo to step down to avoid further violence and transfer power immediately to the legitimate winner of the election, President Ouattara."

Jean Ping, chairman of the African Union's 53-nation grouping, called on Gbagbo “to immediately hand over power" to Ouattara "to shorten the suffering of the Ivorians."

Local U.N. peacekeeping mission chief Choi Young-jin said that as many as 50,000 of Gbagbo's 55,000-strong security force have defected or surrendered, leaving only 5,000 loyal units to defend him.

With Ouattara's supporters now controlling much of Abidjan, there questions over the whereabouts of Gbagbo amid rumors he was preparing to flee.

The French ambassador to Ivory Coast, Jean-Marc Simon, told French radio that Gbagbo's residence had been found empty. He said he had "good reason to believe" Gbagbo had moved into the presidential palace.

"I don't think Laurent Gbagbo is capable of resisting for much longer with all the defections in his ranks ... he is condemned to be removed," Ouattara's spokeswoman Anna Ouloto told AFP.

The U.N. estimates that 1 million people have fled their homes as a result of the post-election violence in Ivory Coast.

About 100,000 of those have fled to Liberia, raising fears that the crisis in Ivory Coast will become a threat to regional stability, the New York Times reported.

Watch this GlobalPost video from Liberia, where militia leaders are recruiting fighters to join the battle in Ivory Coast.



-- Barry Neild, Hanna Ingber Win and Freya Petersen contributed to this report