ABIDJAN (Reuters) - A macabre welcoming committee greeted new arrivals to Abidjan from its northern access road on Tuesday morning: a dozen corpses lined up on a road bank by a petrol station, bullet wounds to their heads.
The wounds and the neat line-up of the bodies suggest an execution but it is hard to say for sure.
A soldier in the forces of Alassane Ouattara, now in control of the area, said they had been shot dead by troops loyal to his rival Laurent Gbagbo as they rushed to greet advancing Ouattara soldiers.
What is more certain is that you do not have to go too far to encounter the acrid stench of death in Abidjan, where pro-Ouattara soldiers launched what they vowed was their final assault to unseat Gbagbo on Monday.
A lull in fighting means the urban motorway leading to the city center is so quiet you can hear birdsong.
Further down the road, a burned-out armored vehicle belonging to Gbagbo’s FDS army straddles the road and the open gutter next to it, smoke still wafting out from its insides.
A civilian is hiding between two corpses lying flat out in the middle of the road. The bodies are those of pro-Gbagbo soldiers blown out of their pick-up truck mounted with a machinegun.
Close by, a FDS tank is in flames, its own light ammunition popping away like firecrackers inside it.
It is not clear how the vehicles came unstuck. But earlier, United Nations and French forces confirmed they would use their mandate to protect civilians as grounds to take out Gbagbo’s heavy weapons.
At the filling station nearby, troops wearing the FAFN insignia of the northern fighters who have declared allegiance to Ouattara take turns at the pumps.
It is like any motorway service station except that the queues are of troop carriers and trucks with rocket launchers, and credit cards are neither needed nor accepted.
Groups of civilians emerged from surrounding neighborhoods with plastic canisters, desperate to find water and food before a midday curfew imposed by Ouattara’s camp.
In the district of Dogbe, several dozen people strike lucky as they come across a water pipe hit by a bullet, spraying its contents across the road.
“We haven’t had water for two days, there is nothing to eat,” said Moussa, a 19-year-old local, walking away with a wheelbarrow filled with water canisters.
He said three people were killed in his neighborhood during fighting overnight, but a lack of bare necessities was pushing people out of their homes onto the streets. “Of course we are afraid,” he said. “But we are also thirsty.”
Editing by Giles Elgood