, ABIDJAN, Dec 18 – International pressure mounted on Saturday on Ivory Coast leader Laurent Gbagbo after his forces launched a deadly crackdown on supporters of a rival claimant on the presidency.
The United States, the European Union and Ivory Coast’s West African allies demanded Gbagbo hand over power to his adversary Alassane Ouattara, after a day of bloodshed on the streets of Abidjan left between 11 and 30 people dead.
Ouattara’s supporters had vowed to return to the streets on Friday to renew a bid to seize control of state television but, despite reports of sporadic gunfire, the sprawling seaport was eerily quiet following Thursday’s violence.
"People are scared to come out because there were victims yesterday. The fear is still there," said Moussa Camara, a militant from Ouattara’s RHDP, guarding his party’s downtown headquarters.
The RHDP in a statement late on Friday called on the people of Ivory Coast to "remain mobilised" until the departure of Gbagbo.
Press freedom lobby group Reporters sans Frontieres (RSF) said several pro-Ouattara dailies had been banned from appearing on Friday, and expressed its "very serious concern" for the country’s press.
In the Abidjan suburb of Abobo, crowds gathered shortly after dawn around the bodies of two young men, their skulls shattered by bullets.
One lay barefoot in his underpants, his head lolling on a congealed trail of blood, the other was spread-eagled by the roadside, his slip-on shoes cast off.
It was not clear who had killed them, but on Thursday the district had seen clashes between armed police loyal to Gbagbo and supporters of Ouattara.
In New York, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said Ouattara must be allowed to take office, adding that "any other outcome would make a mockery of democracy and the rule of law."
At a Brussels meeting of the European Union, France’s President Nicolas Sarkozy said Gbagbo must go "before the end of the week" to avoid being added to a list of Ivorians being targeted by EU visa bans and asset seizures.
"Gbagbo is clinging to power, his supporters are firing, there were people killed in the streets of Abidjan," said Sarkozy. "There is no other possibility than for Gbagbo to leave as soon as possible an office he usurped."
Warning "time is running out", Washington said it was also prepared to impose targeted sanctions against Gbagbo if he tries to hold out.
Gbagbo’s loyal state media and some of his lieutenants remain defiant, making wild claims that France and UN peacekeepers are arming pro-Ouattara northern rebel fighters in preparation for a "genocide", and were no longer neutral.
"The Defence and Security Forces of the Ivory Coast call on the national and international community to bear witness to the fact that ONUCI no longer plays the role of a neutral force," military spokesman Colonel Babri Gohourou said.
But the veteran strongman has himself been more discreet, and on Friday he met African Union envoy Jean Ping, who arrived in Abidjan with a letter from his fellow African leaders in the ECOWAS regional group.
"The letter reiterates … that the president should immediately relinquish power to president-elect Ouattara and avert the imminent return to unnecessary conflict and bloodshed," Nigerian Foreign Minister Odein Ajumogobia told AFP.
Both Gbagbo and Ouattara claim to have won last month’s disputed election, and both have declared themselves president.
On Thursday, Ouattara made his move, calling on his supporters to march on the seat of RTI state television, the only local channel allowed to broadcast and a reliable propaganda tool of the incumbent Gbagbo regime.
They were met with gunfire and tear gas, as street battles erupted across the city. Amnesty International counted nine unarmed protesters shot dead by security forces, as the government said 10 of its own men were killed.
Ouattara’s choice for prime minister, Guillaume Soro, tried to break out of the luxury hotel where his government is holed up, protected by an 800-strong force of UN peacekeepers, but his former rebel fighters were repulsed.
At least two members of Soro’s former rebel New Forces (FN) were killed as they tried to leave the Golf Hotel and head for RTI, in a fierce gun battle that saw the nearby US embassy hit by a stray rocket-propelled grenade.
Nevertheless, the Ouattara camp vowed to try again Friday, calling on its supporters to march once more on RTI and also on the prime minister’s offices. But the task appeared impossible. The station was under massive armed guard, surrounded by a cordon of tanks, and the waterfront Golf Hotel was entirely surrounded by pro-Gbagbo forces, a tank barrel pointed at its walls.
UN peacekeeping troops there appeared calm, relaxing on chairs alongside a large cordon of armoured vehicles.
Ivory Coast has been split since 2002, when a failed putsch against Gbagbo sparked civil war. Since 2003 there has been a truce, with the north held by the former rebel FN and the south by government security forces.