Analysis: Ivory Coast’s Gbagbo faces choice: exit or bloodshed

By Tim Cocks

ABIDJAN (Reuters) – A final assault by rebel forces to chase Ivory Coast’s Laurent Gbagbo from power could be mere hours away, and his choice to fight or flee may determine whether or not his country descends into a bloodbath.

Forces backing Ivory Coast’s Alassane Ouattara, internationally recognized to have won a November election that Gbagbo refuses to concede, have made huge gains in the past two days, seizing swathes of territory in the center, east and west.

They have been in control of the northern half of the West African state since a 2002-3 civil war divided it in two.

They took control of the official capital Yamoussoukro on Wednesday afternoon, and have also seized of much of the cocoa-producing west, advancing to within 130 km (80 miles) of the major cocoa port of San Pedro.

In the east, they advanced hundreds of kilometers unopposed and are believed to be only a few tens of kilometers from Abidjan. The apparent ease with which they have sent Gbagbo’s forces fleeing has caught many analysts by surprise.

“They’re doing a lot better than I was expecting. It seems this was a well and long planned offensive moving at a pace quicker than we thought,” said a Western diplomat in Abidjan.

“The message they’ve given us is that they’re sick of waiting for Gbagbo to stand down and they’re very determined to finish this. But much depends on how unified Gbagbo’s side is.”

Insurgents seized control of Abidjan’s northern Abobo suburb last month, using it as a springboard to attack other targets.

With the pro-Ouattara forces marching south at the pace they are, they could join up with them by Wednesday night.

With enough momentum, they would most likely then target state television and the presidential palace.

“We’re talking days at most. They could well be in Abidjan before the weekend,” said London-based Standard Bank analyst Samir Gadio. “The guys in the east will join up with those in Abobo. I think it’s too late for (Gbagbo) to do anything.”

GBAGBO’S YOUTHFUL LAST RESORT

Just because it’s too late, doesn’t mean Gbagbo won’t try. He has already defied international condemnation, sanctions and threats of military intervention to stay put. Diplomats worry he may rather fight it out than take one of numerous exile offers.

And if there’s to be any last ditch display of valor on the part of his troops, Abidjan is the most likely venue.

The army and paramilitary gendarmerie are seen as divided, but precisely for that reason analysts say Gbagbo has deliberately underarmed and underfunded them, favoring his elite Republican Guard unit, seen as highly loyal to him.

There are around 2,500 of them, out of about 35,000.

“The FDS (regular army) are switching sides, but … They may be able to cut a deal with the regular army in Abidjan, as I hear they did in Yamoussoukro,” said Gadio. “But with the Republican Guard, we’re going to see some fighting. The question is: Will they be able to keep it up?”

If they can’t, that still leaves Gbabgo’s potentially most dangerous and unpredictable weapon: his “Young Patriots.” They have been fired up with endless anti-rebel, anti-French and anti-U.N. propaganda from state media and many of these mostly unemployed, angry youths are itching for a fight.

The army spokesman called on them to enlist on Tuesday, and the following day they started receiving weapons at army headquarters, a source said.

In the past, when few were armed, they have caused mayhem. As increasing numbers receive weapons, they have vented their anger on West African immigrants, killing several, according to Human Rights Watch. Witnesses said they killed 7 people on Wednesday in an attack in a pro-Ouattara area of Abidjan.

“Handing out weapons to the youth is the last option and the civilian toll will be very high. You give Kalashnikovs to intoxicated brains, they will kill even more civilians,” said the International Crisis Group’s Renaldo Depagne.

“Part of them want to fight to the death. Some are really crazy, like suicidal teenagers, but the question is how many.”

He added that there was a risk they would turn their anger on the French or other white expatriates again, after a state media campaign blaming the crisis on a French-led conspiracy.

When Gbabgo fell out with the French peacekeeping mission in 2004, the Young Patriots rampaged through the streets, attacking French people and property. No one was killed, but 8,000 had to be evacuated.

On Wednesday, pro-Gbabgo forces fired on the French ambassador’s convoy. Any full scale civil war in densely populated Abidjan promises to be lethal — as it already has been in Abobo.

“The battle for Abidjan is going to be bloody, if both camps use heavy weapons. Shelling in the bush is one thing, but in urban environments it is absolutely dreadful,” Depagne said.

(Editing by Richard Valdmanis and Philippa Fletcher)

Analysis: Ivory Coast’s Gbagbo faces choice: exit or bloodshed