Port of Ivorian city slips out of Gbagbo's grasp

RUKMINI CALLIMACHI - Associated Press
The Associated Press
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Fighters opposed to Laurent Gbagbo's bid to cling to power man a roadblock in the Abobo district of Abidjan, Ivory Coast Saturday, March 12, 2011. Since repelling intense attacks by security forces two weeks ago, an armed force comprising neighborhood residents, former rebels, and defecting security forces has been steadily gaining ground in Abidjan's northern suburbs and now controls a large swath of territory including Anyama and most of Abobo. (AP Photo / Rebecca Blackwell)

On a road that curves around a swath of humid vegetation at the far north of this commercial capital, cars leave territory controlled by strongman Laurent Gbagbo at a checkpoint consisting of a pile of logs. Beyond it is the first barricade manned by gunmen loyal to the country's internationally recognized president

The line of control is slowly creeping south, toward the presidential palace Gbagbo refuses to let go.

It's been over 100 days since Gbagbo was declared the loser of this African country's presidential election, and for most of that time the residents of the neighborhood called PK-18 waited for the international community to remove the defiant strongman, who first grabbed power a decade ago. That didn't happen and two weeks ago, the face of the neighborhood began to change. Families streamed out, pulling suitcases on rollers behind them.

In their place arrived scruffy men. Some wore amulets around their necks and woolen head coverings, the traditional dress of the country's northern rebels allied with Ouattara.

A team of Associated Press journalists was the first to enter PK-18 this month days after the insurgents had pushed out the army. The reporters crossed 11 checkpoints, some no further than 100 feet apart.

The armed men and boys had set up sandbags at intersections and created roadblocks out of overturned furniture, discarded refrigerators, pieces of plywood and the smoldering shells of the military trucks they ambushed. The army no longer dares enter PK-18, so named because it is exactly 18 kilometers, or K, from the upscale Plateau district, or P, where the white-walled presidency is located which the 65-year-old strongman continues to occupy.

Gbagbo still controls the apparatus of state including the ministries, the port and the military, but the capital itself is starting to slip through his fingers.

A senior diplomat described his armed opponents' movement southward as "a slow creep." The United Nations Special Representative Choi Young-jin told reporters at a Friday press conference: "We can confirm that the region under control by them is increasing."

In the space of a week the first checkpoint manned by the shadowy force has shifted south by at least the length of a soccer field. The insurgency is being organized from what the fighters say is a military base, believed to be a seized police installation. They say they are ready to take the presidential palace but are being held back by the man they are doing this for.

Sitafa Ouattara, the political officer of PK-18, told The Associated Press that Ouattara "doesn't want war."

Over the weekend, a large truck arrived in PK-18 loaded with bags of rice for the cut-off neighborhood. Those unloading the provisions said the truck had been sent by Ouattara's wife. Ouattara himself is confined to a downtown hotel whose exits are blocked by Gbagbo's soldiers.

Ouattara, a bookish 68-year-old, said through a spokesman that he has no contact with the armed force. Those close to him say this is because Ouattara does not want to be perceived as trying to take the country by force when he won the election. Both the country's electoral commission and the United Nations, which certified the results, called him the winner of the November runoff.

For his part, Gbagbo has shown he is willing to use violence to stay in office. At the end of February, his army began using tanks, machine guns, RPGs and mortars against civilians in Abobo, a district of 1.7 million people where PK-18 is located. At least 250,000 people have fled the district and close to 400 have been killed, according to the United Nations.

Ouattara's prime minister Guillaume Soro, the former leader of the New Forces rebels that attempted to overthrow Gbagbo in 2002, told the press in February that "the people of Ivory Coast need to do their own revolution" to "chase Gbagbo out." Soon after, a convoy of military vehicles was ambushed in PK-18.

The pavement where the armored personnel carrier was set on fire is stained black. The charred hull of one police truck is now being used to mark a checkpoint. The men guarding it carry Kalashnikovs.

Most believe Ouattara tacitly condones the armed group and analysts point to him selecting Soro, the former rebel leader, as his prime minister. Many of the boys manning checkpoints in PK-18 acknowledge being FN, referring to Force Nouvelle, the group's French name.

Soro has said he does not believe diplomacy will work, including the most recent attempt by the African Union. The AU on Thursday said Gbagbo must yield power and the country's highest court must swear in Ouattara. On Sunday, Gbagbo's senior adviser Pascal Affi N'Guessan called that stance "unacceptable."

Gilles Olakounle Yabi of the International Crisis Group says the standoff has escalated into a much more dangerous conflict.

"We're not yet in a widespread civil war — but this situation is starting to look a lot like it," he said.

Whereas for the first three months, the violations were largely on Gbagbo's side, the country is now entering a muddier space where Ouattara could quickly lose the moral high ground.

Among the FN commanders rumored to be in PK-18 are men accused of grave abuses during Ivory Coast's 2002-2003 civil war.

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Associated Press writer Marco Chown Oved contributed to this report.