Soldiers loyal to Cote d’Ivoire rival presidential claimants, Laurent Gbagbo and Alassane Ouattara, waged a gun battle in Abidjan on Thursday, and witnesses said at least four people had been killed in street protests.
Separately pro-Ouattara rebels and government army forces exchanged fire across the north-south line of a country split in two by a 2002-2003 civil war, and whose divisions a November 28 presidential election was intended to heal.
A spokesman for the pro-Ouattara New Forces rebels said there had been two deaths on their side in the gun battle near the Golf Hotel, where Ouattara is under protection of U.N. peacekeepers, while the army has confirmed only two wounded.
The incidents marked a sharp escalation in violence between the two camps since the incumbent Gbagbo claimed victory in the election the United Nations and others say Ouattara won. They came as Ouattara supporters marched through the country’s main city to try and seize the premises of the state broadcaster.
“I saw four killed and many wounded. They fired guns to push us back when we tried to march down the street,” one protester said of live rounds fired by the military at a crowd marching near a military police school on their way to the state TV building.
Telephone interviews conducted by Amnesty International with people at the scene of the march indicated there were nine dead, the rights group said. It said the interviews were with five pro-Ouattara protesters and two local human rights workers.
Guillaume Soro, Gbagbo’s ex-premier who has defected to Ouattara’s camp, said 14 demonstrators had been killed during the protests. An army spokesman declined to comment on the reports.
Across town, bursts of heavy fire rang out around the lagoon-side hotel where Ouattara and his allies have set up a parallel administration as a tense days-long stand-off with pro-Gbagbo forces deployed outside turned into a gun battle.
“There is shooting all over the place. There is artillery. There are explosions. It is all coming from the direction of the Golf Hotel,” said one witness.
The U.S. Embassy in Abidjan was hit by an errant rocket-propelled grenade during the protests, a State Department spokesman said in Washington.
Fear of a disruption to supplies in the world’s top cocoa grower pushed futures prices close to four-month highs reached last week. May cocoa on Liffe stood 11 pounds or 0.55 percent higher at 2,023 pounds a tonne at 1600 GMT.
The fighting in Abidjan was mirrored elsewhere as New Forces troops and government troops exchanged heavy arms fire for some three hours in Tiebissou, the central town that marks the line between the rebel-held north and government-held south.
Along with the United Nations, the United States, African states, and France recognise Ouattara as the winner of the election but Gbagbo, backed by the nation’s top legal body, has held on to the presidency, alleging mass vote-rigging.
U.N. helicopters flew over the city as the shooting erupted. The United Nations has about 10,000 soldiers and police in the country. The force has a mandate to protect civilians, but said its job was not to protect the march.
In the Nigerian capital, Abuja, a top-level African Union delegation met Nigerian President, Goodluck Jonathan, current chief of the West African bloc ECOWAS, to discuss the crisis.
A statement issued afterwards reaffirmed the backing of both bodies for Ouattara and said the AU had agreed with the ECOWAS view that a power-sharing deal similar that reached by Kenya after disputed 2007 elections would not be acceptable.
Election commission results showed Ouattara won last month’s election. But the pro-Gbagbo Constitutional Council scrapped nearly half a million votes in Ouattara bastions to hand victory to Gbagbo on grounds of fraud, causing international outrage.
Ouattara’s allies have called on Ivorians to come out onto the streets again on Friday to help them occupy other key government buildings, raising the risk of further unrest.
“Some of this might be sending messages,” one Abidjan-based diplomat said. “The key will be whether they call off tomorrow’s demonstration. It is not tenable.”