ABIDJAN (Reuters) - Ivorian troops killed at least six protesters calling on Laurent Gbagbo to step down as leader on Monday, witnesses said, as African presidents charged with resolving Ivory Coast’s crisis met the incumbent in Abidjan.
Foreign ministers traveling with the presidents late on Monday met Guillaume Soro, prime minister for Alassane Ouattara, internationally recognized as winner of a disputed November 28 election, which Gbagbo refuses to concede.
It was not clear if a meeting was planned with Ouattara on Tuesday.
A dispute over the poll, which was meant to bring stability after a decade of economic and political stagnation in the world’s biggest cocoa-producing country, has paralyzed the country and led to the violent deaths of about 300 people.
Cocoa exports have dried up, driving futures prices to new highs. International banks have shut down operations.
A source who had access to preparatory talks on Sunday said the African panel would insist that Gbagbo stand down, in return for guarantees, to allow Ouattara to take charge of the west African country in accordance with to U.N.-certified results.
There was no statement from the leaders during the day. Gbagbo has previously rejected similar proposals.
The two rivals have formed opposing, parallel governments, although Ouattara remains restricted to a lagoon-side hotel protected by a ring of U.N. peacekeepers.
Ouattara’s government has called for an Egyptian-style revolution to remove Gbagbo but attempts to demonstrate have been thwarted by security forces. Residents reported gunfire in pro-Ouattara neighborhoods of Abidjan, the commercial capital, as soldiers and paramilitaries broke up attempted protests.
In the Koumassi district, residents said soldiers fired on protesters from machineguns mounted on military vehicles. At least three demonstrators were killed, said Koumassi resident Djate Traore, who reported seeing the bodies.
Three people were killed and 14 wounded in the city’s Treichville neighborhood, an official at the mayor’s office who asked not to be identified told Reuters by telephone, adding he saw the dead and helped evacuate the wounded to a clinic.
Ouattara’s camp said the death toll for Monday was twelve, including three civilians hit by a rocket-propelled grenade.
There was no immediate comment from the military. Downtown Abidjan was deserted for most of the afternoon. Youths gathered in small numbers and set up roadblocks of burning tires. Piles of stones lay scattered across roads.
Similar attempts to demonstrate at the weekend were crushed by pro-Gbagbo forces, who witnesses said killed at least five people when they opened fire on attempted gatherings.
Army spokesman Babri Gohourou told state television at least four soldiers or policemen had been lynched by protesters in the past two weeks, three of killed by having their throats cut.
The army extended an overnight curfew imposed at the weekend until Thursday. Ouattara’s camp said protests would continue.
“The Ivorian people will rise up against Gbagbo, because it can no longer accept that an imposter stays in power,” his ambassador to France Ally Coulibaly told Le Parisien newspaper.
“The people eventually get the better of all dictators, even the most impregnable.”
The leaders of South Africa, Mauritania, Chad, Burkina Faso and Tanzania met in Mauritania on Sunday to discuss proposals drafted by African Union experts.
“We could not go back on the previous decision made by the AU commission” which recognized Ouattara as winner of the election, said the source familiar with the talks.
“It was considered that the two candidates could not co-exist, so a transfer of power with guarantees to the losing party was favored ... The high-level panel agreed on the path to be chosen but there are still many details to work out.”
Burkinabe president Blaise Compaore did not travel to Ivory Coast, where Gbagbo supporters accuse him of pro-Ouattara bias.
Citing the “rapid deterioration of the financial sector,” SIB, part of the Moroccan Attijariwafa Group, on Monday became the latest international bank to suspend operations.
Finance Ministry sources said Gbagbo officials were due to meet staff in the Ivorian branches of Societe Generale and BNP Paribas, with a view to re-opening them as nationalized banks on Tuesday.
Additional reporting by Mathieu Bonkoungou in Ouagadougou, Laurent Prier in Nouakchott and Loucoumane Coulibaly in Abidjan, John Irish in Paris; writing by David Lewis and Tim Cocks; editing by Michael Roddy