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Ivory Coast clashes leave 20 dead

Ivory Coast’s election standoff tilted dangerously toward renewed civil war Thursday with reports of heavy gunfire in the commercial capital as security forces clashed with supporters of an opposition leader.

At least 20 people were killed in the violence, government officials told state television.

There were reports of fighting in Abidjan near the hotel that serves as headquarters for Alassane Ouattara, the opposition leader seen by the United States, the United Nations, the European Union and others as the rightful winner of last month’s presidential election.

U.N. troops have surrounded the Golf Hotel in recent days to provide protection for Ouattara, who was prevented from taking power when his rival, incumbent Laurent Gbagbo, refused to step down after the disputed Nov. 28 runoff election.

Both Ouattara and Gbagbo have had themselves sworn in to office and have appointed their own Cabinets. However, Gbagbo, who has been in power for a decade, has the support of the military and police.

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There are fears that if Ivory Coast, which suffered through a civil war beginning in 2002 and has seen rounds of violent internal conflict since, slides into a new civil war it could destabilize the volatile West African region. Neighboring Guinea narrowly escaped a violent meltdown recently after disputed elections there.

Fighting reportedly broke out Thursday between the pro-Ouattara New Forces and the Gbagbo-allied military near the Golf Hotel. The New Forces, a former rebel group, control the north of the country.

Tensions worsened earlier in the day after Ouattara’s prime minister, New Forces leader Guillaume Soro, called on supporters to try to seize the state-controlled RTI television station. It is the main source of news for many Ivorians and has been strongly supportive of Gbagbo during the crisis.

The army surrounded the TV facility, using tear gas and stun grenades against Ouattara’s supporters, according to reports from the scene. Tanks blocked the roads around the television station.

The outer perimeter of the U.S. Embassy was hit by a stray rocket-propelled grenade during the violence, with little damage and no deaths or injuries, State Department spokesman Philip J. Crowley said in Washington.

The conflict underscores the difficulty African and Western leaders face in pressuring incumbent African presidents to leave power after an electoral defeat when they retain control of the military.

The European Union has announced sanctions against Ivory Coast, and the African Union has suspended the country from membership.

Despite international isolation, Gbagbo has shown no sign of stepping down, although he hinted he would be willing to negotiate a deal.

Ouattara is seen as unlikely to accept a power-sharing arrangement. Governments formed after disputed elections in Kenya and Zimbabwe have been criticized as divided and ineffective, and critics argue that such compromises give defeated incumbents little incentive to surrender power.

But if the Ivory Coast violence worsens in coming days, African leaders may face a choice between a deal and civil war.

Jean Ping, chairman of the AU Commission, is expected in Abidjan, the largest city, on Friday. He will try to resolve the crisis after an earlier peacekeeping effort by former South African President Thabo Mbeki failed.

The International Criminal Court’s chief prosecutor, Luis Moreno-Ocampo, warned Thursday that if there was bloodshed, the perpetrators would be prosecuted by the court in The Hague.

“If they start to kill people then it’s a crime and we will pursue them,” he said in an interview with France 24 TV. “The reality is that some people in Ivory Coast are planning attacks and we know that. And I want to tell them clearly: If you do that … you will be prosecuted.”

The ICC on Wednesday named six Kenyans, including three government ministers, accused of responsibility for violence in the East African nation after disputed elections in late 2007.

robyn.dixon@latimes.com

Times staff writer Paul Richter in Washington contributed to this report.


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