Gun battles erupt in Ivory Coast's main city

ABIDJAN Tue Feb 22, 2011 6:37pm EST

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ABIDJAN (Reuters) - Gunfire and explosions shook an area of Abidjan that supports Ivorian presidential claimant Alassane Ouattara on Tuesday, and at least three soldiers died in clashes with protesters calling on his rival to step down.

The clashes carried on most of the day in Abobo, residents and the military said, while African presidents met with Ouattara on a trip aiming to end his violent post-election power struggle with incumbent Laurent Gbagbo.

The election that was meant to heal the wounds of a 2002-3 civil war and years of economic stagnation since, but looks increasingly likely to reignite the conflict.

A day earlier the delegation -- the presidents of South Africa, Chad, Mauritania and Tanzania -- met Gbagbo, who has defied international sanctions and pressure to yield to the results of a November 28 poll that showed he lost to Ouattara.

The military that supports him has crushed dissent in a series of bloody crackdowns, but military officials say they have been provoked because some Ouattara supporters are armed.

"Since this morning, there has been constant shooting between the military and the people here," said Abobo market trader Sephora Konate, who said she heard explosions and machinegun fire, but that later in the night it calmed.

"Everyone is terrified. Children are crying but there's nothing we can say to comfort them."

A commander at army headquarters who could not be named said three soldiers were confirmed killed in the clashes, but thought there were up to five dead. The military rarely gives civilian casualties, but previous clampdowns have left a trail of dead.

More than 300 people have been killed since the poll and the turmoil has driven cocoa futures to their highest level in more than three decades.

Ivory Coast is the world's biggest cocoa producer, and a spokesman for Ouattara said he would extend the ban he had ordered on cocoa exports to March 15.

MEDIATION ONGOING

Before a meeting with Ouattara in a lagoon-side Golf Hotel, where he is besieged by Ivorian troops, South African President Jacob Zuma was mobbed by angry pro-Ouattara youths.

The African Union officially recognizes Ouattara's victory, but is divided between nations with a tough line on Gbagbo, especially West African ones like Nigeria, and a handful which like South Africa do not unequivocally back his rival's win.

South Africa has tentatively backed Gbagbo's call for a recount of the U.N.-certified poll.

More than two dozen pro-Ouattara youths surrounded Zuma's car as he pulled into the hotel and South African security forces had to physically stop them pushing toward him.

"Zuma, Zuma, tell the truth," the youths shouted.

West Africa's regional body ECOWAS had said it would not come as planned due to threats by Gbagbo supporters, though ECOWAS commission chief James Victor Gbeho later arrived. Such threats kept Burkina Faso President Blaise Compaore from coming.

A source close to the talks said the panel would make no public statement until everyone has left.

At least six people trying to protest against Gbagbo were killed by the security forces on Monday, witnesses said. Ouattara's camp said the toll was double that, including three of his supporters killed by a rocket-propelled grenade.

In a further sign that Gbagbo is digging in, and with February salaries due soon, his government said it would open two nationalized French banks later this week.

Gbagbo's camp has earmarked the Ivorian branches of Societe Generale and BNP Paribas, two of many foreign banks to have suspended operations, for nationalization.

"The government will take all measures necessary to put these banks back to work," Gbagbo's inspector general of finance Bernadin Yapi told journalists. "This will show the whole world that the state can take its responsibilities."

(Writing by Tim Cocks; editing by Alison Williams)

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