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Geopolitics

Welcome To Yopougon, Where Ivory Coast’s Civil War Rages On

No, the battle for Abidjan is not over. In a vast and densely populated area of the Ivory Coast's largest city, Laurent Gbagbo loyalists are still fighting 10 days after his arrest.

Among the many children displaced by Ivory Coast fighting
Among the many children displaced by Ivory Coast fighting
Christophe Châtelot

ABIDJAN - Ten days after the arrest of former President Laurent Gbagbo, the battle for power in the Ivory Coast is not over. While the economic capital of Abidjan is slowly returning to normal, in the neighborhood of Yopougon, hundreds of thousands of Ivorians are still under siege.

Thousands of militiamen, armed by Gbagbo while he was still clinging to power, are resisting attacks by the Republican Forces of Ivory Coast (FRCI), who have fought for Alassane Ouattara, the country's new leader. But the end seems near.

"Our strategy is to gain ground bit by bit, and to suffocate Gbagbo's remaining armed groups by isolating them from each other," says Colonel Soumahoro Gaoussou, the FRCI's chief of operations. "(We) are applying military pressure while trying to negotiate their surrender. We're close to our goal."

About a million people use to live in Yopougon, but during the post-election showdown the neighborhood was gradually cut from the rest of Abidjan when the FRCI entered the city on March 31.

Geography did the rest. This area of Abidjan is like a fist reaching into the Ebrie Laguna, with the main highway leading to Yamoussoukro closing it off in the North. The FRCI control that highway along with most of the country.

With water on one side and the FRCI on the other, says Colonel Gaoussou: "the two or three thousand militiamen and mercenaries are trapped."

A Shell gas station serves as a makeshift headquarters for the Republican Forces fighting in the streets of Yopougon. Dozens of alleged militiamen are held there. When reception allows, Colonel Gaoussou uses his cell phone to follow in real time how his men are applying the strategy he's laid out. But some elements are out of his control. "I took position, I'm moving forward but I have to secure my surroundings," says one of his lieutenants who has just arrived from the Yopougon front. "Do you have AK-47s? I have men but not enough weapons. And what about gas?" he asks the colonel.

The station was looted days ago. The FRCI's arsenal is limited. Just a few armed vehicles and many 4x4s that were once personal cars now carry armed men in mismatched fatigues.

The outcome of the battle shouldn't come as a surprise given the obvious disproportionate advantage in firepower and troops. But for any experienced army, beating an urban guerilla comes at great human costs. And the Republican Forces aren't alone. Civilians also pay a heavy price. That's something President Ouattara is trying to avoid in order not to be accused of allowing his rival's electoral stronghold to be massacred.

It is still impossible to come up with a death toll. The Yopougon hospital rooms are strangely empty. Located right off the highway, its entrance is guarded by the FRCI. "Men don't come here because they're afraid to be mistaken for militiamen. Other wounded or sick hide out in their homes because they're afraid of militiamen, or because they don't have transport. People will pour in once the fighting stops," says professor Soro, sitting on the bed in his office where he's been sleeping for more than three weeks.

On Monday, Doctors Without Borders opened a surgery ward in a private clinic in Attie, a militia-held area. About 20 people have already been operated on for gunshot wounds. All talk about the bodies scattered around Yopougon.

"We civilians suffer a lot," says Patrice Kacou, a Yopougon teacher. "Walking around in the streets is dangerous, almost impossible for foreigners. There are no cars except for the militia, and we're running out of food."

A humanitarian aid worker says militiamen are taking increasing risks to loot stores closer and closer to FRCI-controlled lines. Kacou says: "The wisest thing for fighters to do is to give up arms and go under the radar. Gbagbo is our only president and he'll be back."

Negotiations are ongoing between two militia representatives and Cherif Ousmane, a "zone commander" for the FRCI and a historic leader of the anti-Gbagbo rebellion back in 2002, which split the country in two. "They want guarantees for their safety if they surrender," says Colonel Gaoussou. "And probably a few suitcases full of Euros," adds another officer.

Talks are said to be on the right track, but the situation is complicated – and fluid. There are militiamen banded together in improvised patriotic self-defense neighborhood groups and "highly motivated combatants' who've arrived by boat from other Abidjan neighborhoods after Gbagbo's April 11 arrest.

"They include Liberian mercenaries who have nothing to lose," says commander Zoua. "There's no one left to pay them. And if the militiamen and mercenaries don't surrender, we will attack them like a swarm of bees."

Photo - Sunset Parkerpix

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