ABIDJAN Fierce fighting spread across Abidjan on Friday as troops loyal to Ivory Coast's Laurent Gbagbo fended off attacks by forces supporting Alassane Ouattara's rival claim to the presidency.
The heaviest clashes centered around the state television station, which went off the air after it was attacked by pro-Ouattara forces over Thursday night, but which resumed broadcasting pro-Gbagbo footage late on Friday.
The boom of heavy weapons fire rang out constantly from near Gbagbo's residence and presidential palace, both of which have come under attack, as well as two major military bases -- turning Ivory Coast's main city into a war zone.
"We can hear shooting and see soldiers moving but there are also armed civilians running in the streets," said Camara Arnold, a resident of Cocody, the neighborhood that is home to the state television building and Gbagbo's residence.
Two white MI-24 attack helicopters belonging to the United Nations peacekeeping mission circled above central Abidjan's palm-fringed lagoon, but did not intervene.
Gbagbo, who has refused to quit after a November 28 election that U.N.-certified results showed he lost, has been hit by a number of high-level defections in the military.
The African Union, former colonial ruler France, the United States, and U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon called on him to step down immediately.
But in the commercial capital loyalists have dug in, and a Paris-based Gbagbo adviser said the incumbent's surrender was "out of the question."
Forces supporting Ouattara, recognized as winner of the November election by African nations and Western powers, marched into Abidjan on Thursday after a swift push south that initially met with little resistance.
But they now face Gbagbo's most reliable fighters, the roughly 2,500-strong elite Republican Guard, clustered in Abidjan along with remaining regular army troops.
U.N. PEACEKEEPERS KILL GBAGBO SOLDIERS
U.N. peacekeepers in Ivory Coast killed at least five soldiers loyal to Gbagbo during a clash in Abidjan, while three peacekeepers were injured in a separate incident, according to an internal U.N. document seen by Reuters on Friday.
The United Nations, which has accused Gbagbo's side of abuses against civilians and of stirring up anti-U.N. sentiment, also called on Ouattara to rein in his forces, citing what it said were unconfirmed reports they had abducted and mistreated civilians.
While figures for dead and wounded were unavailable, Doctors Without Borders said it had treated at least 80 people over the past two days, most of them suffering from gunshot wounds.
"The majority are young men, though we can not tell whether they are combatants or civilians," said Mego Terzian, the aid group's emergency desk manager. "We are taking care of anyone who is able to reach our hospital."
Corinne Dufka, senior West Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch, said witnesses in Treichville, where the Republican Guard has a base used to protect Abidjan's main bridges, and Port Bouet reported "numerous" civilians killed by sniper fire.
The power struggle in the world's top cocoa grower pushed cocoa prices higher in recent weeks, but they have tumbled since on expectations exports will soon be freed up.
Ivory Coast's $2.3 billion 2032 bond, on which it defaulted in January, extended gains on Friday, rising more than 3 points to a 3-1/2-month high.
A Paris-based adviser of Gbagbo's, Toussaint Alain, said Gbagbo remained in Ivory Coast and would not give up. He declined to say if Gbagbo was in Abidjan.
"We would urge Mr Gbabgo to read the writing on the wall and to step down now," a U.S. State Department spokesman said.
Hundreds of foreigners have been taken to a French military camp after they were threatened by looters taking advantage of the chaos.
Gbagbo has been in power since 2000. His mandate ran out in 2005 but the presidential election was delayed until 2010, ostensibly because of instability in the country.
A Sorbonne-educated history professor who prides himself on being in touch with ordinary Ivorians, he rose to prominence as firebrand lecturer who challenged the autocratic rule of Ivory Coast's first post-independence president.
The four months of post-election turmoil has killed hundreds and rekindled the country's 2002-3 civil war. About 1 million have fled Abidjan alone and 122,000 have gone to Liberia.
This week, Ouattara's forces advanced from all directions, taking the capital Yamoussoukro and San Pedro cocoa port.
An EU diplomat said sanctions will not be lifted on San Pedro cocoa port until Gbagbo steps down.
Some of Gbagbo's top officers, including the head of his armed forces and gendarmerie, have abandoned him but an unknown number are putting up stiff resistance.
(Additional reporting by Tim Cocks in Abidjan; Additional reporting by George Fominyen and David Lewis; Writing by Richard Valdmanis and David Lewis; Editing by Andrew Roche)