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Guns silent in Ivory Coast but fear persists

Battle positions in Abidjan are abandoned, but bands of uniformed soldiers and militias in civvies roam the city. It is anyone's guess whose side they are on and how dangerous they might be.

April 05, 2011|By Robyn Dixon, Los Angeles Times
  • Forces loyal to U.N.-recognized President-elect Alassane Ouattara in the Ivory Coast's commercial capital of Abidjan, which had seen days of heavy fighting.
Forces loyal to U.N.-recognized President-elect Alassane Ouattara in… (Legnan Koula / EPA )

Reporting from Johannesburg, South Africa — When the soldiers left their battle positions and the guns fell silent Tuesday morning in the Cocody neighborhood of Abidjan around Ivory Coast's presidential palace, terrified residents didn't feel safe enough to go outside.

Bands of uniformed soldiers and militias in civvies roamed the city, the nation's commercial capital. It was anyone's guess whose side they were on and how dangerous they might be.

The uniforms of the rival forces in the fierce fight for power are identical — and the allegiances of ragtag armed youth militias rampaging and looting shops and houses are equally unclear. Some back longtime leader Laurent Gbagbo, who plunged the country into crisis by refusing to relinquish power after his defeat last year in a United Nations-certified presidential election, while others support the internationally recognized new president, Alassane Ouattara.

The intense fighting has left families trapped in their houses since Thursday, many of them desperate as they run out of food supplies or cooking gas.

"The situation is really confused," Isidore Kouadio, 24, a student staying with friends about 300 yards from the presidential palace, said by telephone. "There are some militias who have guns. Many people have guns."

Forces loyal to Ouattara launched assaults across the country last week, closing rapidly on Abidjan, attacking Gbagbo's residence, the presidential palace, military bases and state television. On Monday, U.N. and French peacekeepers bombed those targets to destroy Gbagbo's heavy arms.

Kouadio said the biggest terror is the Young Patriots, a volatile pro-Gbagbo militia known for unprovoked attacks on civilians.

"For now, it's not safe to go outside. We're just waiting," he said. "We are confused because we don't have any information about what is going on around the area."

Kouadio said heavy weapons fire was so fierce Monday that it shook the walls.

He and the family of six, including two children ages 1 and 3, survived the siege in a hallway, afraid to move around the house because of stray bullets.

"We couldn't sleep at all last night. I couldn't bear it anymore. When you see children crying because you have no food to eat, it's really terrible," Kouadio said. "It was even difficult to take a shower because you're afraid you'll take a bullet. I was really afraid."

The family had a bag of rice but ran out of cooking gas. When fighting was less fierce, Kouadio crept into the stairwell of the apartment building, begging food from neighbors who were better stocked.

He said he had seen soldiers leaving their posts in the course of the day and that the pro-Ouattara television station had reported a cease-fire. Gbagbo's TV station was destroyed Monday night by the U.N. strikes.

Kouadio felt betrayed by Ivorian politicians, who he believes should have found a peaceful solution, rather than battle each other in the heart of Abidjan, a city of 5 million in normal times. A million residents have fled, according to the U.N.

"I'm angry at the politicians because I think they're the ones who created this situation," he said. "They could not find any other solution to the problem and they were blind to the suffering of the people. That made me really angry."

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