Africa

Can Ivory Coast avoid return to war?

Pro-Ouattara fighter at roadblock
Image caption Pro-Ouattara fighters now control several Abidjan districts

As Ibrahim Diabate fled from his home in Ivory Coast's main city, Abidjan, he spotted young men with the guns from the force nicknamed the "Invisible commandos" in plastic sandals and Bermuda shorts.

He tried to backtrack, but they had already seen him and motioned him to come towards them.

"Don't worry," they shouted. "We mean no harm." They searched him for weapons and then let him go.

Mr Diabate is one of the hundreds of thousands of people who have fled the districts of Abobo, Anyama, and now Plateau-Dokui, as soldiers who back disputed President Laurent Gbagbo have increasingly lost control to this shadowy force.

The "invisible commandos" say they are a self-defence group that formed to protect supporters of Mr Gbagbo's rival, Alassane Ouattara, from repeated raids by the pro-Gbagbo security forces.

In a new report, Human Rights Watch (HRW) accuses the pro-Gbagbo forces of a "three-month campaign of violence", which "gives every indication of amounting to crimes against humanity".

It details the use of executions, rape and beatings against West African migrants and Ivorians thought to support Mr Ouattara.

HRW also describes violent attacks by pro-Ouattara forces in Abobo, including the burning alive of people accused of siding with Mr Gbagbo.

Many fear that the country is sliding inexorably back towards the all-out conflict which the elections were supposed to end, once and for all.

Coming to a head?

On 28 November 2010, millions of Ivorians voted in an election which most hoped would mark the end of the most difficult decade in a country which once enjoyed the highest living standards in West Africa.

The presence of 9,000 UN peacekeepers, 3,000 international election observers and an independent electoral commission left little doubt about the outcome of the vote - Mr Ouattara was the winner.

But Mr Gbagbo and his allies disputed the result, saying pro-Ouattara rebels had rigged the vote in the northern areas they control.

Since then, Mr Ouattara, the internationally-recognised president-elect, has been mainly under blockade in a hotel in Abidjan, while his rival clings on to power.

International condemnation was followed by a range of sanctions designed to force out Mr Gbagbo.

The West African central bank handed over control of the state accounts to Mr Ouattara and closed down their offices in Abidjan, prompting a liquidity crisis which has left private banks closed for the last three weeks.

The European Union introduced sanctions against 91 leading Gbagbo supporters, as well as the country's two main ports.

A call by Mr Ouattara's government for a boycott on exports of the country's main cash crop, cocoa, has been widely followed, in what is the world's biggest producer.

This has all left Mr Gbagbo struggling to pay salaries and pensions, while Abidjan - Africa's sixth largest city, once known as the Paris of Africa - increasingly resembles a war zone divided between rival forces.

With the sanctions starting to bite and tension rising on the street, things could be coming to a head in the coming weeks.

'Honourable exit'

Civil servants - most importantly the security forces - are due to be paid before the end of the month.

Image caption Some 370,000 people have their Abidjan homes in recent weeks

The Gbagbo regime had technical and financial trouble paying February's salaries and pensions, with many getting reduced amounts, if at all.

And the African Union, which has reiterated its backing of Mr Ouattara, says all sides need to meet by 24 March to set out how the handover of power will be implemented.

Accepting AU recommendations for him to lead a government of national unity, Mr Ouattara addressed the nation on Wednesday night on his newly-established television station, TVCI.

He pledged to "form a government of national union and reconciliation… including the Ivorian Popular Front [Laurent Gbagbo's party] and the civil society, for the recovery of our country".

He said he was offering Mr Gbagbo a "last chance for a peaceful and honourable exit".

Mr Gbagbo has not yet responded.

Image caption UN peacekeepers are patrolling the front lines

In the meantime, rumours circulate of army defections, prompted by the lack of any direct communication from the head of the army and other leading generals for a number of days.

Whatever the truth and the degree of army loyalty to Mr Gbagbo, the state security forces have struggled to contain the armed fighters who control Abobo.

The Abobo forces claim to have risen up spontaneously to defend the population, but there is evidence of ties with the former New Forces (NF) rebels.

Since 2002, the NF have controlled the northern 60% of the country and have recently gained control of several towns in the far west on the border with Liberia.

But the NF, led by Mr Ouattara's Prime Minister, Guillaume Soro, has generally yet to move south over the 2003 ceasefire line.

The pro-Ouattara camp still hope defections and continued international pressure will swing the presidency their way without the need for all-out war.

The BBC's Africa Have Your Say programme will be hearing from people caught up in the Ivory Coast conflict on Thursday 17 March at 1600 GMT.

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