, ABIDJAN, Dec 16 – At least four demonstrators were shot dead in Abidjan on Thursday as troops loyal to one Ivory Coast’s two self-declared presidents mobilised to thwart an attempt to storm state television headquarters.
Soldiers deployed by Laurent Gbagbo’s regime set up a cordon of armoured cars around the broadcaster’s Abidjan offices, as France and the United Nations called for restraint and warned of the dangers of a return to violence.
Young supporters of Gbagbo’s rival Alassane Ouattara massed in several poor city districts, throwing up street barricades and hurling stones at police and armed with assault rifles and backed by more armoured vehicles.
Gunfire rang out and an AFP photographer saw three bodies with bullet wounds in the northern district of Adjame following a clash, while an AFP reporter saw a fourth body amid more violence in Koumassi in the south of the city.
Witnesses said the dead had been killed by police fire.
Police fired teargas as they violently dispersed marchers in the Abobo area, and at least three more protesters were left lying motionless in the street, but reporters were unable to confirm the extent of their injuries.
Both Ouattara and Gbagbo claim to have won last month’s election, and both have declared themselves president, triggering fears of new chaos in a country already divided since 2002 into northern and southern armed camps.
Ouattara was recognised by the international community but is running out of time to assert his rule, with the incumbent Gbagbo hanging on to the military, the ministries and the cocoa ports that are the key levers of state power.
"The situation is taking a worrying turn with unfolding events that could lead to widespread violence," United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon warned on Wednesday, according to his spokesman in New York.
On the eve of the march, witnesses and a health official in the political capital Yamoussoukro said several pro-Ouattara demonstrators had been shot and wounded when security forces broke up a protest there.
On Thursday, residents told AFP by telephone that the streets were deserted and businesses closed amid fears of more violence.
After two weeks of stalemate and hardline rhetoric from both sides, Ouattara and his would-be prime minister, former rebel leader Guillaume Soro, called on their supporters to march on and seize RTI television on Thursday.
If this succeeds, Soro hopes to push on Friday to take control of the well-defended government headquarters complex in the central Plateau district of Abidjan, eject Gbagbo’s ministers and hold a cabinet meeting of his own.
The army and Gbagbo’s hardline youth supporters — the "Young Patriots" movement led by Youth Minister Charles Ble Goude, who is personally under UN sanctions for leading mob violence in 2004 — have vowed to resist.
Meanwhile, the International Criminal Court’s chief prosecutor alleged that some in Ivory Coast were plotting attacks and warned that he would prosecute those responsible if deadly violence breaks out.
"If they start to kill people then it’s a crime and we will pursue them," ICC prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo said.
"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," he told the France 24 news channel.
Ouattara’s shadow government is holed up in a luxury hotel on an Abidjan golf course, protected by UN peacekeepers and former rebel fighters from Soro’s northern "New Forces".
The pair are popular in the mainly-Muslim north, but in the southern commercial capital they are outgunned by Gbagbo’s regulars, in particular the feared Republican Guard and the well-armed Cecos anti-robbery squad.
France called for restraint from both sides.
"I believe Gbagbo will accept the result of the election in which Ivorians very clearly chose Ouattara as their president," French Foreign Minister Michele Alliot-Marie told LCI television.
Gbagbo’s supporters have accused France and the United Nations of planning a "genocide" and anti-French feeling is running high. There are 900 French peacekeepers in the country, but Paris says they will not intervene.