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Ivory Coast leader’s troops open fire; nations plan ouster

By Rukmini Callimachi
Associated Press / January 19, 2011

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ABIDJAN, Ivory Coast — Security forces loyal to Laurent Gbagbo, the Ivorian leader who refuses to cede power, opened fire yesterday, killing at least one person, as military chiefs from neighboring nations met to plan possible armed intervention to depose him.

The shooting broke out early in the morning in the neighborhood of Abobo, the largest district of this commercial capital, with more than 1.7 million residents. Most residents in Abobo voted for opposition leader Alassane Ouattara, who has been internationally recognized as the winner of the recent presidential election.

Ouattara has been unable to assume the presidency because Gbagbo refuses to leave office despite sanctions, multiple visits by African leaders, and now the threat of a military ouster. As the shooting continued, an African Union envoy was in town to attempt to persuade Gbagbo to leave peacefully.

Officials at the mayor’s office in Abobo said angry youths who had voted for Ouattara burned tires and police opened fire. At least one civilian was killed, said a security guard at the building who spoke on condition of anonymity because he feared for his safety. Once the shooting died down, a reporter was able to enter. The heart of the neighborhood was scarred by the black marks of smoldering tires. Sporadic shots could be heard.

The gunbattle broke out as the army chiefs of staff from 15 nations belonging to the regional Economic Community of West African States, or ECOWAS, met in Mali to discuss a military operation to remove Gbagbo. Such a move is considered a last resort because it could cause mass casualties.

“Virtually every member of ECOWAS has agreed to contribute troops,’’ said Air Chief Marshall Oluseyi Petinrin of Nigeria, the president of the ECOWAS Committee of Chiefs of Defense Staff, at the opening of the meeting. He did not give further details but said military preparations are “already well underway.’’

A Western diplomat briefed on the meeting said the military chiefs are expected to travel by special flight to Boake, a city in northern Ivory Coast controlled by Ouattara to conduct a reconnaissance mission. The diplomat spoke on condition of anonymity because who asked that his name not be used because he was not authorized to give interviews.

Any military move would probably involve moving troops and equipment through the north of the country, the region where the opposition leader was born and which is staunchly pro-Ouattara. Gbagbo controls much of the south, including the institutions of power in Abidjan.

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