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Ivory Coast capital seized by president-elect's forces

Troops loyal to Alassane Ouattara, recognized internationally as victor of the November presidential election, take over Yamoussoukro. Incumbent Laurent Gbagbo, who has refused to step down, asks for cease-fire.

March 31, 2011|By Robyn Dixon, Los Angeles Times
  • People carry their belongings as they head toward a railway station as they leave Abidjan as Alassane Ouattara's forces advance toward the business hub.
People carry their belongings as they head toward a railway station as they… (Emanuel Ekra, Associated…)

Reporting from Johannesburg, South Africa — Troops loyal to Alassane Ouattara, the man widely viewed as the legitimate president of Ivory Coast, have seized the nation's capital in their effort to remove his rival from power, a spokesman said late Wednesday.

"Yamoussoukro has fallen," said Patrick Achi, a spokesman for Ouattara, who was recognized internationally as the country's president after winning a U.N.-certified election in November. However, Ouattara's rival, incumbent Laurent Gbagbo, has refused to relinquish power.

The city reportedly fell without a fight, with residents cheering the pro-Ouattara Republican Forces, who fired celebratory shots into the air.

Cisse Sindou, a leader of the Republican Forces, earlier confirmed that his troops had moved into the capital. He said Gbagbo had given his fighters no choice but to attack in order to enforce the election results. He dismissed Gbagbo's call Tuesday for a cease-fire and talks.

Sindou spoke by telephone from the town of Tiebissou, about 25 miles north of Yamoussoukro, which he said had fallen to his forces.

"What is going on is very simple," Sindou said, as revving motors and shouting could be heard in the background. He occasionally shouted instructions to people during the phone call. "Gbagbo is refusing to leave; the Republican Forces are going to make him leave, with or without his agreement."

Taking Yamoussoukro is symbolically important for the Republican Forces. However, control of the nation's commercial capital, Abidjan, 140 miles south, is seen as the key to victory. Abidjan is polarized between the competing forces, with analysts predicting a bloody fight unless Gbagbo steps down.

Gbagbo was looking increasingly vulnerable Wednesday, with the pro-Ouattara forces occupying large swaths of the west, center and east of the country.

Yamoussoukro residents voted overwhelmingly for Ouattara in the election. Gbagbo, who took power in 2000, had not used the city, with its vast presidential compound, wide streets and huge European-style cathedral, as his capital.

He based himself instead in Abidjan, which has seen violent clashes in recent weeks.

Ouattara spokesman Achi said the Republican Forces advanced to within 80 miles of the strategically important cocoa port of San Pedro and control the main cocoa-producing areas in the west.

Tiebissou also fell without a fight, according to residents and a Gbagbo army source cited by Reuters news agency, although fighting has been reported in some of the towns the Republican Forces had invaded.

The Republican Forces, formerly known as the New Forces, are led by Guillaume Soro, Ouattara's prime minister. They have occupied the north since a civil war in 2002 divided the country.

Ouattara and his government have been trapped in Abidjan's Golf Hotel, cut off by Gbagbo's soldiers but protected by a large force of United Nations peacekeeping troops. Although movement is limited to U.N. helicopter flights to and from the hotel, Ouattara was able to leave Ivory Coast this month to meet with African leaders in Ethiopia.

According to the U.N., nearly 500 people have been killed in the violence in recent months and as many as 1 million have fled their homes.

On Wednesday, the U.N. Security Council unanimously approved a resolution demanding an immediate end to the violence and imposing sanctions on Gbagbo, the Associated Press reported. It condemns Gbagbo's decision not to accept Ouattara's election and urged him "to immediately step aside."

Human Rights Watch reported this month that most of the abuses and killings were committed by Gbagbo loyalists, and amounted to crimes against humanity. But Ouattara militants also have committed some abuses, according to a March 15 report by the rights group.

The Ouattara camp has repeatedly claimed that Gbagbo has lost the loyalty of large portions of the army, but the assertion hasn't been tested.

Moreover Gbagbo has been recruiting youths from his dangerous and volatile militant wing, the Young Patriots, into the army in recent weeks. Many Young Patriots turned up at army headquarters Wednesday to enlist in the army, according to military officer quoted by Reuters.

robyn.dixon@latimes.com

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