ABIDJAN, Ivory Coast — After weeks of battling to take control of areas where they are popular, fighters loyal to Ivory Coast’s internationally recognized president pressed forward into hostile territory yesterday, attacking a district loyal to the incumbent leader who refuses to cede power.
Moustapha Bakayoko, a resident of Abidjan’s Yopougon neighborhood, said fighting started early near the home of the army chief, Philippe Mangou. Mangou has remained loyal to Laurent Gbagbo since the political crisis erupted after Gbagbo refused to step down after losing the November election.
A spokesman for the pro-Gbagbo army, Colonel Hilaire Gohourou, confirmed that the battle in Yopougon was ongoing but declined to give details.
The attack was the first inside an Abidjan neighborhood that voted for Gbagbo. It shows that the fighters, who call themselves “invisible commandos’’ and claim allegiance to internationally recognized president Alassane Ouattara, are moving south, in the direction of Gbagbo’s presidential palace.
Three fighters who had participated in last week’s battles to take over PK-18 and Abobo, two neighborhoods in the northern part of Abidjan, confirmed that they were now pressing south into the notoriously pro-Gbagbo Yopougon district. They asked not to be named because of the sensitivity of the issue.
“We aren’t going to remove Gbagbo by force, that’s for the military to do,’’ one fighter said. “We are simply fighting to protect the population from the police, who’ve been killing indiscriminately.’’
The election standoff has degenerated into bloody street battles. Ivory Coast stands on the brink of civil war, with the pro-Gbagbo army accused of gunning down hundreds of civilians who voted for Ouattara.
At least seven women were shot and killed by police loyal to Gbagbo in Abobo on March 3 — International Women’s Day — as they were protesting an end to the violence, which the United Nations says has killed nearly 400 people.
After the shooting, fighters for Ouattara barricaded the Abobo area with burned-out cars. Over the weekend, Gbagbo’s forces announced a major offensive to take back the district. After only a few hours of fighting on Saturday, they were forced to retreat, leaving Abobo in the hands of pro-Ouattara forces.
Months of diplomacy have failed to persuade Gbagbo to yield power; in recent weeks, Ouattara’s backers have launched military operations in Ivory Coast’s far west, seizing four towns.