ABIDJAN (Reuters) - Laurent Gbagbo has called on Ivory Coast’s civilians to help his forces “neutralize” suspected rebels, raising fears of a return to all out civil war as fighting continued in Abidjan on Friday.
Meanwhile, the United Nations said Thursday’s bombing of civilians which it blamed on pro-Gbagbo forces may constitute a crime against humanity. Gbagbo’s camp has denied responsibility.
The world’s top cocoa grower risks slipping back into open conflict after a disputed November 28 election, which Alassane Ouattara won, according to internationally-recognized results, but Gbagbo refuses to concede despite sanctions and isolation.
Speaking on state-run RTI television just before midnight, Gbagbo’s government spokesman Ahoua Don Mello called on Ivorian civilians to join the fight against what he called “terrorism.” “His Excellency Mr Laurent Gbagbo calls on Ivorians to take a great responsibility and for a stronger collaboration between citizens and the security forces ... so that all suspect presences in our environment can be ‘neutralized’,” he said.
After a cabinet meeting on Friday, Gbagbo’s government reiterated a call for dialogue with the opposition but Ouattara has long said Gbagbo’s departure is the prerequisite for talks.
In recent weeks, the post-election crisis has escalated into full scale clashes between rival forces in Abidjan and the west, across a north-south ceasefire line from a 2002-3 civil war.
At least 25 people were killed when pro-Gbagbo forces fired a series of mortar rounds into Abidjan’s northern Abobo district on Thursday, including one that exploded in a busy marketplace, the U.N. peacekeeping mission said.
“It is quite difficult to avoid the conclusion that this may be an international crime, possibly a crime against humanity,” Rupert Colville, spokesman for the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay, said in Geneva.
Pro-Gbagbo security forces said they were not responsible.
Gbagbo’s use of civilian militias is seen as one of his most dangerous weapons. His “Young Patriots” -- often armed, angry youths -- have wreaked havoc on Abidjan in the past.
Youth mobs armed with automatic weapons, sticks and machetes have set up roadblocks all over town and have attacked United Nations staff and killed West African immigrants and Ouattara’s Dioula tribespeople, says Human Rights Watch.
Residents of Abobo which is now more or less under the control of forces backing Ouattara, reported shooting and heavy artillery on Friday from pro-Gbagbo troop positions.
“There was a big exchange of fire. It hit some shops and quite a few caught fire,” said Abobo resident Abdoul Ouattara.
A Reuters reporter heard gunfire and explosions from the direction of Adjame, just north of the central business area, and in the leafy Cocody suburb, where state TV is based.
Hundreds taking refugee from the fighting in Abobo were gathered in a church, carrying belongings they had salvaged -- suitcases, clothes, blankets and cooking pots.
“Now we’re looking for a way out, because even here we can’t sleep through the gunfire,” said Marie-Paul Gnakadi, cradling an infant. “I‘m going back to the village where I‘m at ease.”
The U.N. says more than 435 people have been killed in the crisis, though Ouattara’s camp says the toll is 720, with another 450,000 forced from their homes by violence.
Ouattara has been recognized as president by nearly all world leaders, as well as the U.N. and the African Union, but Gbagbo has defied sanctions, with military backing.
France’s foreign ministry said on Friday the former colonial power wants the U.N. Security Council to adopt tighter sanctions quickly against Gbagbo [ID:nPISIEE781].
Before Gbagbo spokesman Mello appeared on state television, a news report said the U.N. peacekeeping mission was smuggling mercenaries from Burkina Faso, Mali and Senegal to fight alongside the rebels -- seemingly another attempt to stir up popular hatred against the mission and West African immigrants.
Both have been attacked by pro-Gbagbo mobs in recent weeks.
Editing by David Lewis and Sophie Hares