3:53pm

Thu March 31, 2011
Africa

Ivory Coast Fighters Lay Siege To Main City

Fighters pushing to install Ivory Coast's democratically elected president began a siege of a main city Thursday as the country's top military commander apparently abandoned his post.

The apparent defection of Gen. Philippe Mangou represents another serious blow to embattled former leader Laurent Gbagbo, who has clung to power since losing November's presidential elections to Alassane Ouattara.

Ouattara's forces have swiftly gained control of significant towns and cities across the former French colony in an offensive launched Monday. They were on the outskirts of Abidjan, Ivory Coast's commercial capital and Gbagbo's last stronghold.

News reports said French forces had been deployed in some parts of Abidjan, though that could not be immediately confirmed.

The fighters also advanced into Yopougon, a district of Abidjan that fervently supports Gbagbo, witnesses told The Associated Press.

"They will enter the city on multiple fronts, from multiple directions," said an aide to Ouattara who asked not to be named because he is not authorized to speak to the press. He said they also had taken Gbagbo's hometown, the village of Mama, where the former president had built a lavish villa.

"The rebels slept in Gbagbo's bed," the adviser said.

Gbagbo hasn't been seen in public for weeks, even though state TV announced twice on Wednesday evening that he was preparing to address the nation.

"The end is almost here. It's a matter of hours," said Patrick Achi, spokesman for Ouattara. "We issued our ultimatum yesterday. ... If Gbagbo does not want the fighting to happen in Abidjan, he should surrender. If he doesn't, we have no choice."

But even a rebel onslaught on the country's commercial capital will not force Gbagbo to leave, said Toussaint Alain, one of his advisers.

"He will not resign in the wake of this attack. He is not going to abdicate. He is not going to lay down his arms," Alain said. "He will stay in power to lead the resistance to this attack against Ivory Coast organized by France, the United States and the United Nations."

United Nations radio announced that the port of San Pedro, 190 miles west of Abidjan, was taken by rebels late Wednesday.

San Pedro residents said by telephone that soldiers retreated in trucks while firing into the air as the rebels moved into the city, which is the world's top cocoa-exporting seaport. Hours earlier, the rebels took the capital, Yamoussoukro, in central Ivory Coast.

Mangou — who had remained staunchly loyal to Gbagbo — took refuge with his wife and five children Wednesday night at the residence of South Africa's ambassador to the Ivory Coast.

Clayson Monyela, a South African Foreign Ministry official, said Mangou and his family were allowed to stay at the ambassador's home in Abidjan "on humanitarian grounds," but that no immediate decision had been made on whether to grant him asylum. He said South Africa's Foreign Ministry was consulting with unnamed parties in Ivory Coast, West African regional leaders, the African Union and the U.N. on Mangou's move.

South African President Jacob Zuma has been a key mediator as the African Union sought to find a peaceful way to install Ouattara as president.

As recently as last week, Mangou was seen exhorting crowds of youths to enlist in the military and "liberate" their country from the rebels.

The U.S. called on all sides to exercise restraint and protect civilians.

Assistant Secretary of State for Africa Johnnie Carson said Thursday that he can't predict when Gbagbo will be ousted, but that forces loyal to Ouattara are closing in. He said Gbagbo and his wife will be held accountable for violence resulting from their refusal to cede power.

"It is absolutely clear that he is in a substantial and significantly weakened position having lost most of the territory that he holds in the south and with defections among his senior military ranks," Carson said.

At least 462 people have been killed and up to 1 million have fled their homes amid the postelection chaos.

New York-based Human Rights Watch said militia fighters loyal to Gbagbo killed at least 37 West African immigrants in a village near the Liberia border.

NPR's Ofeibea Quist-Arcton, reporting from Accra in neighboring Ghana, said the deaths could have been in retaliation for the capture of areas loyal to Ouattara.

Ouattara said Thursday on his private TV station that the rebels, who fought in a vicious civil war almost a decade ago that left the country divided, were attacking to install him in the presidency. He said he had repeatedly asked for international military intervention, which never came.

"In order to end the escalation of violence in our country and in keeping with their mission to protect the population against militias and mercenaries under Gbagbo's control, [the rebels] have decided to re-establish democracy and enforce the choice of the people," he said.

The rebels have faced almost no resistance, but many fear that army troops still loyal to Gbagbo plan to make a final stand in Abidjan.

Outtara's whereabouts were not immediately known. He had been holed up for months in the lagoonside Golf Hotel in Abidjan, protected by U.N. peacekeeping troops. Ouattara, who is from the country's north, had long tried to distance himself from the rebels.

On Wednesday, the U.N. Security Council unanimously demanded an immediate end to the escalating violence and imposed sanctions on Gbagbo and his inner circle.

Gbagbo and Ouattara have vied for the presidency for months, with Ouattara using his considerable international clout to try to suffocate his rival both financially and diplomatically.

With reporting from NPR's Ofeibea Quist-Arcton in Accra, Ghana, and Michele Kelemen in Washington, D.C. Material from The Associated Press was used in this story. Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.