Africa

Inside Ivory Coast's captured capital

Soldiers in Yamoussoukro, 31 March 2011
Image caption Forces loyal to Alassane Ouattara took over the capital with little opposition

The BBC's John James becomes the first foreign correspondent to enter the capital of Ivory Coast, Yamoussoukro, after its capture by forces loyal to the internationally-recognised president-elect, Alassane Ouattara.

The wide boulevards of Ivory Coast's white-elephant capital are empty at the best of times, but there's barely a civilian vehicle on the road.

On the drive down from the former rebel capital Bouake, we see villagers staring at the convoys of vehicles that pour down from the north, scattering all before them.

Within a few minutes of arriving, we reach the walls that surround the vast grounds of the presidential palace built by the country's founding father, Felix Houphouet-Boigny, who made this, his home village, the capital.

Opposite the walls lies the deserted headquarters of the Republican Guard.

They were supposed to be among incumbent President Laurent Gbagbo's strongest allies, but they melted away with barely a fight.

"There are no Republican Guards here - lots of them are now with us and others fled," says Camara, one of the former rebel soldiers now fighting for Mr Ouattara, showing us around.

Charismatic commander

Inside the barracks, 100 or so fighters are in high spirits, dividing up equipment and preparing to move further south.

Then the charismatic commander of the Bouake zone, Cherif Ousmane, arrives with his bodyguards and starts shouting at those helping themselves to the Republican Guard supplies.

"We're no longer a rebel group, we are an army, and Ouattara needs this base intact when he's president," he shouts as his fighters cower.

Further into the city, pro-Ouattara fighters celebrate their victory by firing their Kalashnikovs into the air to entertain a crowd of schoolchildren.

One of the students, Traore Mohammed, from the local high school, was pleased the fighters had arrived in the capital, which voted strongly against Mr Gbagbo in the elections.

"I think that what the Republican Forces are doing is good - I think by Monday things will be stable; we can go back to school and take our exams," he said.

Image caption The streets of the capital are quiet

At the gates of the presidential palace, I met Augustin Thiam, a tribal chief.

"We must say thank you for the people who came here to free us. We feel really grateful," he said.

"Happiness is back, Cote d'Ivoire is back. We don't agree with war, but sometimes you are obliged to do so."

Most residents are waiting at home, pleased the capture of their town happened so quickly and waiting for the country's fortunes to change.

In one home, 20 people gathered around a television to watch Mr Ouattara address the nation from the hotel where he's been under siege since winning the election.

There was disappointment when he didn't announce Mr Gbagbo's departure.

"We just need him to go and then we can get back to our lives," said Sylvie Kouame, waiting for more news from Abidjan as the pro-Ouattara forces push south.

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