An armored U.N. vehicle positions itself between women in support of Ivory… (Issouf Sanogo, AFP/Getty…)
Reporting from Johannesburg, South Africa — A spasm of deadly violence in Ivory Coast, including the killings of six women who were shot Thursday as they demanded that the country's intransigent president step down, points to an irreversible slide back into civil war in the West African country, analysts say.
The United Nations reported Thursday that 26 people had been killed in the preceding 24 hours amid a complete breakdown of trust between the country's rival presidents. That toll included the women, who had staged protests believing they wouldn't be targeted by the army, which is loyal to incumbent President Laurent Gbagbo.
Gbagbo refused to step down after he was declared the loser in a United Nations-certified election last year. Winner Alassane Ouattara refuses to take part in any compromise unity government that includes his opponent, making a peaceful solution elusive.
Rinaldo Depagne, an analyst with the International Crisis Group think tank, said it was difficult to see a resolution because of the distrust between Gbagbo and Ouattara.
"It would be very difficult to find," he said in a phone interview from Dakar, Senegal. "You have got Laurent Gbagbo, who doesn't want anything but to stay as president, and for him it's nonnegotiable. And Ouattara doesn't trust Gbagbo at all."
Ouattara controls the central bank, but operates out of a hotel. Gbagbo controls the army, but is facing difficulties paying the troops.
Ivory Coast was split in two after an armed rebellion in 2002. A halting peace deal in 2007 led to a unity government with Gbagbo as president and northern rebel leader Guillaume Soro as prime minister. After years of delay, the presidential election finally was conducted in November.
More than 300 people have died in violence since the balloting, but recent fighting in the commercial capital, Abidjan, and the west of the country broke a six-year cease-fire and marked the apparent failure of the African Union's efforts to find a peaceful solution to the election standoff.
Tens of thousands of people have fled fighting between Gbagbo forces and a group known as the "invisible commando" in Abobo, the pro-Ouattara neighborhood of Abidjan where the women were killed.
U.N. peacekeepers have been threatened and attacked by pro-Gbagbo forces. Security forces have shot and killed anti-Gbagbo protesters, and hundreds have been abducted from pro-Ouattara neighborhoods.
And a leader of the rebel New Forces, Cisse Sindou, warned that his men would assassinate Gbagbo to end the suffering of Ivorians.
"We're just going to take him out. It's going to be surgical and we know what we're doing," he said in an interview with the BBC published Tuesday.
Corinne Dufka, a Human Rights Watch expert on West Africa, was pessimistic about the chance of halting the slide into civil war. She said her group was deeply concerned about the welfare of civilians, particularly if the fighting spreads.
"I think you do have a resumption of hostilities and I don't see this as a blip," she said. "The root cause is the transition crisis. Both sides have shown themselves to be absolutely intransigent. That actually eliminates the possibility of the negotiated solution."
The regional body of West African leaders, ECOWAS, has threatened military intervention to force Gbagbo to step down, but it probably would be a bloody affair.
Dufka said military intervention appeared increasingly likely, after the failure of economic sanctions on Gbagbo's regime, diplomatic isolation and an arms embargo.
"The big question is, once all other options fail, is an armed response justified to ensure that the voters see justice done?" Dufka said.
With the nation having rival presidents, each with his own Cabinet, the crisis has also posed a major challenge to the African Union's democratic aspirations.
The continent-wide body of African leaders includes as many dictators as real democrats, and has often turned a blind eye to fraudulent elections or presidents who engineer constitutional changes to stay in power for decades. But in a departure from its tendency to support incumbents, the AU last year recognized Ouattara as president.
It was an unusually tough, unified position, but it didn't last long. In February, the South African government distanced itself from the AU position, describing the election as inconclusive.
South African President Jacob Zuma, who was part of an AU delegation that flew to Abidjan in a failed attempt at mediation last month, was almost mobbed by angry young Ouattara supporters.
Meanwhile, Burkina Faso's president, Blaise Compaore, refused to fly in for fear of being attacked by Gbagbo's backers.
A civil war would destabilize one of West Africa's most volatile countries. The disputed poll also sends an alarming message in a year when 18 African presidential elections are taking place, including in Nigeria, the region's powerhouse.