ABIDJAN, (Reuters) – Soldiers loyal to Ivory Coast’s rival presidential claimants Laurent Gbagbo and Alassane Ouattara clashed yesterday, escalating a poll row and fears of a renewed civil war in the West African state.
At least four people were killed in street protests in the main city of Abidjan while pro-Ouattara rebels and government forces exchanged fire there and in Tiebissou, the central town marking the line between the rebel-held north and government-held south after a 2002-3 war, witnesses said.
“I saw four killed and many wounded. They fired guns to push us back when we tried to march down the street,” one protester said of live rounds fired by the military at a crowd marching to the state TV building.
Heavy weapons fire rang out around the lagoon-side hotel where Ouattara and his allies set up a parallel administration as a tense days-long stand-off with pro-Gbagbo forces deployed outside turned into a gun battle.
“There is shooting all over the place. There is artillery. There are explosions. It is all coming from the direction of the Golf Hotel,” one witness said.
The violence in the world’s top cocoa grower comes after incumbent Gbagbo claimed victory in a Nov. 28 poll meant to reunify the country, rejecting as fraudulent results from the electoral commission showing a Ouattara win.
The United Nations, the United States, African countries and former colonial ruler France have recognised Ouattara as president-elect, despite a ruling by Ivory Coast’s top legal body upholding Gbagbo’s claims of fraud and giving him the win. A spokesman for Ouattara’s camp said his supporters would take to the streets of Abidjan again on Friday in an effort to take control of the state broadcasting building, despite yesterday’s violence.
“We will continue to march,” Patrick Achi said by telephone.
Telephone interviews conducted by Amnesty International with people at the scene of the march indicated there were nine dead, the rights group said. It said it had interviewed five pro-Ouattara protesters and two local human rights workers.