In Ivory Coast north, hopes rise for Gbagbo exit

By Mark John

FERKESSEDOUGOU, Ivory Coast (Reuters) – Across the northern stronghold of Ivory Coast presidential claimant Alassane Ouattara, towns are cheering the advance of his military backers with a mixture of delight and incredulity.

“They have promised us Gbagbo will be out by the end of the week,” said barmaid Viviane Soro of the incumbent leader of the West African country, pointing to a television set switched permanently to the pro-Ouattara TCI station.

“Gbagbo has asked for a ceasefire. But honestly, what would be the point of agreeing to that now?” said Soro, 25, who works in the town of Ferkessedougou, a trading post 40 km (25 miles) inside Ivory Coast’s northern border, reading off the list of pro-Ouattara military victories.

Four months after the election aimed at ending a bitter north-south rift but whose disputed outcome brought the world’s top cocoa grower to the brink of another civil war, northern pro-Ouattara forces on Monday launched an all-out assault on the Gbagbo held south.

In the few days since, a string of towns have fallen to the soldiers calling themselves the Republican Forces of Ivory Coast (FRCI) as the regular pro-Gbagbo army either flees, or rallies to their side.

BEARING DOWN ON GBAGBO

The FRCI, whose exact size as a fighting force is still not known, now controls the official capital Yamoussoukro, the bulk of the cocoa regions, and is bearing down on the main city of Abidjan where Gbagbo sits in his palace.

Northerners like Soro thought that by voting for Ouattara they could end what they see as years of discrimination at the hands of a southern-based elite which has long questioned their Ivorian nationality and denied them full rights as citizens.

When UN certified results showed Ouattara the winner, they thought their moment had come. But days later a top legal body run by a Gbagbo ally alleged vote rigging in the north, annulled hundreds of thousands of votes and handed victory to Gbagbo.

“I don’t know whether Ouattara will be any better. But after 10 years of Gbagbo we should at least give him a try,” said Assita Sanoga, a 31-year-old street trader, who had settled in the pro-Ouattara Abidjan suburb of Abobo, but fled to the north on Monday amid rising violence in the city.

Ouattara’s camp on Wednesday delivered Gbagbo an ultimatum to quit quickly and peacefully. Such an outcome could pave the way for the kind of solution proposed by the African Union in which Ouattara would lead a unity government with some Gbagbo allies.

But the bitterness felt by Sanogo and others here suggests they will find it hard to accept the kind of political reconciliation needed for such a coalition or, most analysts agree, any kind of lasting peace.

Her anger grows as she recounts how a member of her family was killed when pro-Gbagbo forces allegedly fired on a peaceful protest by women in early March, an attack Gbagbo’s camp denies.

She then produces a mobile phone with a video image of a dead man, his throat slashed and machete wounds across his body. She says the film was taken in Abidjan in recent days and shows a northerner who suffered street justice for turning to Gbagbo’s side.

Others here point to crimes alleged to have been committed by authorities under Gbagbo and say things have gone too far for him to be handed the type of amnesty offer mooted by the AU.

“Justice must be done to Gbagbo and his crowd,” said a street clothes trader called Raoul. “He can’t be just allowed to go away.”

(Editing by Richard Valdmanis and Giles Elgood)

In Ivory Coast north, hopes rise for Gbagbo exit