ABIDJAN, Ivory Coast – Forces supporting Ivory Coast’s entrenched strongman broke through the security perimeter imposed around the presidential compound Saturday, firing on French helicopters in an advance that appeared to breathe new life into Laurent Gbagbo’s camp, which had been teetering on the brink of defeat.
Residents in the Cocody district of Abidjan reported two hours of explosions and heavy arms fire before sunrise on Saturday and French forces said that helicopters attempting to evacuate diplomats from a residence near the presidential compound were hit by machine gun fire.
No French soldiers were injured in the attack by pro-Gbagbo forces, but the helicopters fired back destroying one armored vehicle, said Cmdr. Frederic Daguillon, the French forces spokesman.
At the Golf Hotel, only a few miles from the presidential residence, soldiers loyal to internationally recognized president Alassane Ouattara scrambled to defend the compound, sending out patrols and reporting heavy fighting.
“(Pro-Gbagbo) forces tried to attack the Golf,” Felicien Sekongo, a spokesman for Ouattara’s Republican forces, told the Associated Press Saturday. “They pushed into Cocody and Plateau districts but have been stopped and pushed back.”
State Department deputy spokesman Mark C. Toner said in a statement the U.S. condemns the new assault.
“It is clear that Gbagbo’s attempts at negotiation this week were nothing more than a ruse to regroup and rearm,” he said. “Gbagbo’s continued attempt to force a result that he could not obtain at the ballot box reveals his callous disregard for the welfare of the Ivoirian people.”
In power for a decade, Gbagbo refuses to step aside even though the U.N. has ruled that he lost the November presidential election to his political rival Ouattara. For the last four months Ouattara has been living out of the Golf Hotel, protected by U.N. forces as the internationally recognized leader of Ivory Coast.
With fighting ongoing, it was difficult late Saturday to determine whether Gbagbo’s soldiers had succeeded in gaining ground or whether the counterattack had failed to turn the tables.
Heavily armed and uniformed soldiers loyal to Gbagbo guarded the state television antenna in the central plateau district Saturday. The station, which has been denounced by the United Nations for broadcasting “lies” and “propaganda,” went black when Ouattara’s forces entered Abidjan, but it came back on the air Friday afternoon. As long as it stays on the air, Gbagbo retains a powerful tool to rally his supporters and keep his resistance alive.
Also on Saturday, the U.N evacuated 17 British citizens from the British High Commissioner’s residence, only steps from Gbagbo’s compound. The diplomatic residence, like many others in the neighborhood, had come under fire several times in the last few days.
Gbagbo, who refuses to cede power, has been confined to a bunker in his presidential compound protected and surrounded by his best fighters who reportedly since Thursday have gone without water or electricity. Still, they repelled an initial attempt by Ouattara’s forces to push into the residence.
Reports that Gbagbo and his top military men were negotiating a surrender had raised expectations Tuesday that the four-month political standoff in the western African nation was nearing an end.
But Gbagbo strongly denied that he would give up and insisted that the presidency was rightfully his. His advisers denounced last week’s French and United Nations helicopter attacks as illegal international interference in Ivory Coast’s internal affairs.
“We have always been in a mindset for dialogue,” Gbagbo’s security adviser Bertrin Kadet said Saturday. “It was them who attacked us. We are simply defending ourselves. We won’t die.”
There are also new concerns about tensions erupting into deadly violence in the country’s west. The U.N. said Friday more than 100 bodies have been found in the last 24 hours, and some of the victims had been burned alive.
The U.N. said peacekeepers and human rights officials discovered about 60 bodies in the western town of Guiglo. The U.N. human rights agency said another 40 corpses were found lying in the street in Blolequin, and many of them had been shot. Fifteen other bodies were found in Duekoue, where violence already has left at least 229 dead in recent weeks.
The postelection violence has left hundreds dead and has forced up to 1 million people to flee.