ABIDJAN/UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - Forces loyal to Ivory Coast incumbent leader Laurent Gbagbo stepped up a counter-attack on presidential claimant Alassane Ouattara on Saturday by firing on his hotel headquarters in Abidjan.
A U.N. official said the attack on the Golf Hotel, which Ouattara has made his base since November’s disputed election, involved heavy weapons that appeared to have been launched from Gbagbo’s presidential palace.
“Mortars targeting Golf Hotel,” the official said in a text message, on condition of anonymity.
A spokesman for Ouattara said United Nations peacekeepers guarding the hotel had exchanged fire with Gbagbo’s soldiers.
“There was combat around the Golf Hotel this evening because Gbagbo’s forces attempted to move closer to the hotel and the U.N. forces protecting the hotel responded to push them back,” said Ouattara spokeswoman Massere Toure.
Mariam Konate, a resident of the area near the hotel said: “There was fierce fighting with heavy weapons and our houses shook, even some windows shattered. We’re all locked in our homes, but things quietened down about an hour ago.”
Rebel forces seeking to install Ouattara, who won the election according to results certified by the United Nations, swept down from the north to Abidjan almost unopposed more than a week ago.
But despite fierce fighting, Gbagbo’s soldiers are still clinging to swathes of the economic capital.
French soldiers supporting the U.N. mission in Ivory Coast and backing Ouattara’s claim to the presidency secured Abidjan’s port Saturday, but said the central neighborhoods of Cocody and Plateau were still being fought over.
“They (Gbagbo’s forces) won some positions overnight that they lost again this morning,” said Frederick Daguillon, spokesman for the French force in Ivory Coast, Licorne. He said Gbagbo’s fighters “have become more confident.”
French helicopters clashed with Gbagbo’s defenders early on Saturday during a failed attempt to rescue diplomatic staff trapped by the fighting in Cocody.
The French military said Gbagbo’s fighters had also shelled the home of the French ambassador late Friday, a claim denied by a Gbagbo advisor in Paris who said the former colonial ruler was making up reasons to attack Gbagbo’s forces.
Reuters witnesses said a fragile calm had returned to many parts of the city Saturday, allowing shell-shocked residents to leave their homes in search of food and water amid the debris of war, or to attempt an escape to safer areas.
“Yesterday, militiamen came to our house, we were threatened,” said Jean Kima, a Burkinabe fleeing on foot with his family in the northern district of Gesco.
“Luckily we got out, thanks to the FRCI (Ouattara forces) who came. But we are trying to get out, to Bouake. The militia could come back at any moment and perhaps the worst will happen next time.”
Gbagbo is believed to be isolated in the bunker under his residence in Cocody, where he has sought refuge from a concerted assault by Ouattara’s troops while his force of elite presidential guard and militiamen do battle.
Only three days ago, his defeat had appeared imminent and talks took place between the two sides.
A senior commander of Ouattara’s forces near the northern entrance to Abidjan, Zacharia Kone, said his soldiers were prepared for any counter-attack:
“Even is there is one, we’re not afraid. We’re ready here to act at a moment’s notice. We’ll wipe them out properly.”
But in a further sign of Gbagbo regaining influence, the state television channel RTI, silent after recent heavy fighting, came back on air with a plea for support.
“The regime of Gbagbo is still in place, a strong mobilization is required by the population,” it said.
Gbagbo, who has ruled Ivory Coast since 2000, is defended by around 1,000 men. November’s election was meant to draw a line under a 2002-3 civil war that split the world’s top cocoa producer in two, but instead re-ignited it.
Burned-out vehicles and looted shops with wares spilling out of smashed windows were evidence of recent fighting in the south of Abidjan, as a French military convoy wound its way to the port handling the bulk of Ivory Coast’s cocoa shipments.
“It was at the request of incoming president Ouattara that we have come to secure the port zone,” said Captain Roland Giammei, who said the forces were working alongside Ivorian gendarmes loyal to Ouattara.
Ivory Coast’s cocoa industry, the world’s largest, has been paralyzed since January, when Ouattara announced a ban on exports and the European Union imposed shipping restrictions in order to squeeze Gbagbo’s finances.
Ouattara is now seeking to revive the country’s economic motor as fast as possible.
Friday, the EU lifted restrictions on the ports of Abidjan and San Pedro at his request. Saturday, the first Air France passenger flight since April 1 landed in Abidjan.
But even if Gbagbo leaves, Ouattara’s ability to unify the West African state may be undermined by reports of atrocities since his forces — a collection of former rebels from the north — swept into Abidjan more than a week ago.
The U.N. human rights office said Friday it had found 115 bodies in the west, adding to the 800 dead reported by aid groups last week. Some had been burned alive and others thrown into wells, a chilling reminder of Ivory Coast’s ethnic and religious divisions. Ouattara’s camp has denied involvement.
Additional reporting by Emmanuel Braun in Abidjan, Patrick Worsnip and Louis Charbonneau at the United Nations, Bertrand Boucey and Elizabeth Pineau in Paris, and Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva; writing by Richard Valdmanis; Editing by Kevin Liffey