800 dead in Ivory Coast town as fighting continues
At least 800 people have died in a western Ivory Coast city in the past seven days, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) said Saturday as rebel troops laid siege to President Laurent Gbagbo's forces in Abidjan, reported dpa.
The ICRC in a statement said the casualties came during inter-community fighting in the town of Duekoue, which forces loyal to would-be president Alassane Ouattara seized earlier this week.
"This event is particularly shocking due to its size and brutality," said Dominique Liengme, head of the ICRC delegation in Ivory Coast.
Heavy fighting, including artillery barrages, continued in Abidjan Saturday, witnesses said, although according to military sources many of Gbagbo's troops have deserted.
Pro-Ouattara forces topped a lightning assault through the country when they entered Abidjan Thursday and began battling pro-Gbagbo forces at key sites.
Gbagbo's whereabouts were unknown overnight Friday, although the French envoy to Ivory Coast said he believed the embattled president was still in the palace.
France Info public radio on Saturday quoted unnamed French sources as saying Gbagbo is still at his residence, surrounded by his Republican Guard.
His spokesman in France said he was still in Abidjan.
"He will not step down, he will not abdicate in the face of a coalition of rebels supported by two international powers: France and the United States," Toussaint Alain told France Info.
Ivory Coast was plunged into unrest when Gbagbo refused to cede power to Ouattara after November elections that the United Nations says the incumbent president lost. Serious military action by the rebel forces backing Ouattara only got underway in recent weeks after mediation efforts and sanctions failed to budge Gbagbo.
The Republican Forces of Cote D'Ivoire (FRCI), comprised of northern rebel group New Forces and other armed groups, have already overrun Yamoussoukro, the nation's political capital, and the city of San Pedro, the world's largest cocoa-exporting port.
The rebels briefly controlled state television channel RTI, but it came back on line on Friday and began its normal diet of pro-Gbagbo propaganda.
Residents said fighting was ongoing around the building housing the channel, as well as the presidential palace and other areas of Abidjan.
Nicolas Sarkozy, the president of Ivory Coast's former colonial master, spoke with Ouattara by telephone on Friday evening.
Afterward, the French presidency warned that "those responsible for acts of violence would not escape their criminal responsibility" and said "the time had come for all the Ivorian nation to rally around the president it elected and to finally open a new page of peace, reconciliation and development."
The election was supposed to consign to history the ghost of the 2002 civil war that divided the country into the rebel, mainly Muslim, north and Christian south.