ABIDJAN/UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - Forces loyal to Laurent Gbagbo, besieged in his Abidjan residence, have retaken ground from rival presidential claimant Alassane Ouattara, the United Nations said on Friday.
France said Gbagbo’s forces had fired at the residence of the French ambassador in Abidjan, prompting counter-strikes by French helicopters.
In another sign Gbagbo has not yet been defeated, his RTI television, silent since fierce fighting broke out in Abidjan this week, came back on air broadcasting an appeal for support.
“The regime of Gbagbo is still in place, a strong mobilization is required by the population,” it said.
Gbagbo, who has refused to cede power to Ouattara despite U.N. certified results showing he lost a November election, remains isolated in the bunker where he has sought refuge from a concerted assault by Ouattara’s troops.
Only three days ago, his defeat had appeared imminent and talks took place between the two sides.
“They clearly used the lull of Tuesday as a trick to reinforce their position,” U.N. peacekeeping chief Alain Le Roy told reporters after briefing the U.N. Security Council. “There is still fighting going on but there is a stalemate.”
He said they now fully controlled the upscale Plateau and Cocody districts and were edging closer to the Golf Hotel, where Ouattara has been holed up since the November 28, 2010 election.
“While we speak they may be very close to the Golf Hotel.”
French helicopters struck Gbagbo’s compound in the early evening, hours after an attack by Gbagbo’s forces on the nearby residence of the French envoy, witnesses said.
Ouattara’s ability to unify the West African state may be further undermined by reports of atrocities since his forces -- a collection of former rebels from the north -- swept south into Abidjan more than a week ago.
The United Nations human rights office said on Friday it had found 115 corpses in the west in the past 24 hours, adding to the 800 dead reported by aid groups last week.
Some of the victims were burned alive and others thrown into wells, in a chilling reminder of the ethnic and religious divisions gripping the country -- and mirroring the divide between Gbagbo, whose traditional powerbase is in the Christian south, and Ouattara’s Muslim, northern-based forces.
In a speech late on Thursday, Ouattara said steps would be taken to shed light on all crimes committed during the conflict and that he would collaborate with international bodies to investigate human rights abuses and punish those found guilty.
He said his soldiers had blockaded Gbagbo in the presidential residence, and vowed to restore stability and the rule of law.
His forces have denied carrying out massacres. But human rights groups say there is evidence that while Gbagbo’s forces committed the bulk of the atrocities since the stand-off began four months ago, Ouattara’s soldiers are also to blame for indiscriminate violence against civilians.
U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay said the crimes committed throughout the conflict may amount to crimes against humanity, welcoming Ouattara’s commitment to call on his supporters to refrain from violence and establish a Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
France, the former colonial power in Ivory Coast, has taken a lead role in efforts to persuade Gbagbo to relinquish power, infuriating his supporters who accuse Paris of neo-colonialism.
Helicopters from French forces and the U.N. peacekeeping mission had already bombarded Gbagbo’s heavy weapons stockpiles earlier this week, including those near the residence, but a fierce attack on the compound by Ouattara’s forces was repelled.
Gbagbo, who has ruled Ivory Coast since 2000, is defended by around 1,000 men -- his presidential guard and youth militiamen.
A spokesman for Gbagbo denied that the French ambassador’s residence had been attacked.
“The Ivory Coast government believes France is looking for a pretext to resume bombings on the presidential palace,” Toussaint Alain told Reuters in Paris.
Ouattara has also vowed to restore security and revive Ivory Coast’s cocoa sector, the country’s main economic engine, which has been paralyzed by EU shipping restrictions since January.
At his request, the European Union eased on Friday sanctions on four entities, including the ports of Abidjan and San Pedro.
The November poll was meant to draw a line under Ivory Coast’s 2002-3 civil war, but the dispute over results rekindled it, turning Abidjan -- long known as the ‘Paris of West Africa’ -- once again into a war zone.
A week of fighting for control of Abidjan has driven terrified residents to scramble to find food and water, with frequent power cuts and hospitals overwhelmed with wounded.
Aid workers estimate 1 million people have been displaced by the fighting, and some 150,000 people have fled the country.
“I was born here, but I am leaving and I am never coming back,” said Imad Zarour, 40, who was waiting to be evacuated at a French military base on Friday. “Even if there’s peace, even if they give me a billion dollars, I will never come back to this country. I hate it.”
Additional reporting by Mark John in Abidjan, Louis Charbonneau at the United Nations, Bate Felix and Silvia Aloisi in Dakar; writing by Silvia Aloisi and Richard Valdmanis; editing by Ralph Boulton