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Abidjan holds its breath, awaiting final battle

French soldiers, part of the French Force Licorne, patrol in the Port Bouet district of Abidjan on Saturday. The U.N. mission in Ivory Coast began moving employees out of the city Sunday after attacks on its headquarters.

Associated Press

French soldiers, part of the French Force Licorne, patrol in the Port Bouet district of Abidjan on Saturday. The U.N. mission in Ivory Coast began moving employees out of the city Sunday after attacks on its headquarters.

ABIDJAN, Ivory Coast — Residents barricaded themselves inside their homes Sunday, blanketing windows and pushing furniture against doors as this country on Africa's western coast tensely awaited the final battle between the two men who claim the presidency.

Fighters backing the internationally recognized president, Alassane Ouattara, amassed at a tollbooth on the northern edge of Abidjan, the commercial capital, preparing for the final assault. Their leader was declared the winner of November's election, but Ouattara has not been able to assume office because outgoing president Laurent Gbagbo is refusing to yield power.

Water has been cut off to much of Abidjan, and on the empty streets, a handful of women with basins could be seen hurriedly crossing the waterfront highway to reach the lagoon. Men ventured out with plastic bags to scoop up water, holding the bags high in the air to signal to soldiers in firing positions that they were not armed.

Only about 20 miles separates the thousands of pro-Ouattara foot soldiers readying for battle from the lagoonside district where the presidential palace and mansion are located.

A resident of the Cocody neighborhood where the mansion is located told the Associated Press that about 700 Gbagbo supporters had gathered at the gates of the compound Sunday, after state television, still controlled by the entrenched ruler, called on the population to form a human shield to protect the presidential palace. The resident, who asked not to be named for fear of reprisal, said the supporters had been armed with AK-47 assault rifles.

Toussaint Alain, Gbagbo's representative in Europe, told reporters in Paris that Gbagbo is not giving up.

"President Gbagbo, I have said, is at the residence of the head of state, his usual workplace, and he is managing the crisis with teams that have been put into place to deal with this aggression coming from the outside," he said.

The international community has been nearly unanimous in backing Ouattara, whose win with over 54 percent of the vote was confirmed by Ivorian election officials and a 900-strong United Nations observation mission.

In Washington, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton called on Gbagbo to step down immediately. She expressed concern about a massacre in the town of Duekoue, where U.N. investigators said Sunday at least 430 people were killed last week, after pro-Ouattara forces moved in. It's unclear which side committed the killings, with both camps denying responsibility.

In Nairobi, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon reiterated the call. "There has been too much bloodshed," Ban said.

The armed group backing Ouattara began its advance on Abidjan six days ago, taking nearly 80 percent of the country before reaching the perimeter of Abidjan.

Abidjan holds its breath, awaiting final battle 04/03/11 [Last modified: Sunday, April 3, 2011 11:19pm]

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