x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

Heavy fighting reported near Ivory Coast presidential palace

Forces loyal to the internationally recognised leader, Alassane Ouattara, ordered the country's borders closed in an apparent bid to end the power deadlock with Laurent Gbagbo.

ABIDJAN, IVORY COAST // Heavy fighting raged yesterday near Ivory Coast's presidential palace and mansion and the state television broadcaster as armed forces loyal to the elected leader tried to install him to power and oust the country's strongman.

The internationally recognised leader, Alassane Ouattara, ordered the country's borders closed including the main airport in an attempt to prevent the strongman Laurent Gbagbo and his allies from fleeing.

Residents locked up in their homes reported barrages of heavy arms fire punctuated by detonations throughout the night. On the peninsula where the presidential palace is situated, buildings were shaking with each explosion, witnesses said.

Patrick Achi, a spokesman for Mr Ouattara, said the fighters had breached the city limit overnight and were waging battles at the palace and the residence.

Mr Achi said the forces, who are former rebels who fought in a civil war a decade ago that left Ivory Coast divided, had seized Radio Television Ivoirienne, or RTI, the government-owned broadcaster late on Thursday.

About 10pm the state television signal was cut. Mr Achi said that they were having technical difficulties transmitting their own images, but a senior diplomat said fighting continued outside the station, and that it was unclear if Mr Ouattara's forces fully control it.

Gunfire was also ongoing around the presidential mansion, where Mr Gbagbo may be holed up, although the defiant leader has not been seen in public since the offensive began five days ago.

"We don't know where he is," said the diplomat who asked not to be named because he is not authorised to speak to the press.

Mr Ouattara's foreign minister, Jean-Marie Kacou-Gervais, said the borders were being closed to trap Mr Gbagbo and his allies if they attempt to flee. "His inner circle is trying to run - but they won't be able to."

Since the military offensive began, some of Mr Gbagbo's closest associates have deserted him, including the head of the army who sought refuge at the home of the South African ambassador, and Mamadou Koulibaly, the head of the national assembly, who according to a witness at the airport, left on one of the last outgoing flights on Thursday.

Choi Young-jin, the top UN envoy in Ivory Coast, said on Thursday that as many as 50,000 soldiers, police and members of the security force have abandoned Mr Gbagbo in recent days.

Mr Gbagbo lost last November's presidential election according to his country's election commission and international observers, but has stubbornly refused to step down. Sanctions imposed on him and his inner circle have failed to dislodge him.

The armed offensive is the most severe threat that he has faced, and analysts say they expect Mr Gbagbo's regime to fall within days. "It's over - except for the shooting," the diplomat said.

The chairperson of the commission of the African Union, Jean Ping, urged Mr Gbagbo to immediately hand over power to Mr Ouattara "in order to shorten the suffering of the Ivorians", the AU said in a statement from Addis Ababa.

A Swedish woman working for the United Nations was killed by a stray bullet during fighting in Abidjan on Thursday night, the foreign ministry in Stockholm confirmed. Some 500 foreigners sought refuge at a French military base, Col Thierry Burkhard said.

Since the election, up to one million people have fled the fighting and at least 494 people have been killed, most of them supporters of Mr Ouattara.

After months of political deadlock, armed forces backing Mr Ouattara launched a rapid offensive this week, overrunning nearly 80 per cent of the country as soldiers fled and towns fell in quick succession. The regular army put up almost no resistance until the armed group reached Abidjan on Thursday, and what is expected to be the final battle began.

In the main point of entry in the city's far north where a four-lane motorway reaches the door of Abidjan, a resident said that he saw the column of pro-Ouattara fighters arrive yesterday.

He described dozens of transport lorries and 4-by-4s mounted with machine guns entering the suburb of Anyama, loaded down with uniformed fighters. The population of Anyama, one of the areas that voted in large numbers for Mr Ouattara, lined the road to salute the force.