, ABIDJAN, Feb 25 – Fighting flared again Thursday in Ivory Coast between supporters of rival claimants to the presidency as the UN peacekeeping mission said the unrest has claimed 15 lives in the past week.
The streets of the economic capital Abidjan resonated anew with heavy weapons fire as a battle also broke out in the west of the country near the Liberian border pitting troops loyal to outgoing president Laurent Gbagbo against former rebels who support his rival, Alassane Ouattara.
The fighting in Abidjan began in the early evening in the northern neighbourhood of Abobo, a Ouattara fiefdom where the rival forces have battled for days, witnesses told AFP.
One described the heavy weapons fire as deafening.
Also Thursday an officer of the Defence and Security Forces (FDS), loyal to Gbagbo, told AFP that fighting took place at Zouan-Hounien, in the west of the country, after an FDS post was attacked by former rebels of the New Forces (FN).
He gave no details of casualties, but the FN based in the central town of Bouake said that "80 FDS" had been killed and blamed the government troops for the attack.
The FDS expected "major reinforcements" in coming hours from Doukoue to the southeast, the officer said.
The clash is one of the most serious between the two forces in the region since a crisis began in November when Ivory Coast went to the polls and Ouattara was widely recognised as the winner but Gbagbo refused to step down.
Zouan-Hounien is in the "confidence zone" that has separated the rival sides since battles in late 2002 and 2003 after a foiled coup bid against Gbagbo, who has run Africa\’s leading cocoa producer since 2002.
"Such a confrontation could represent a resumption of armed conflict and thus be a violation of the ceasefire," UNOCI warned.
"It would have serious consequences for the Ivorian people and even for the region. It would raise even more the tensions that have been seen since mid-December 2010 and which rose a notch over the last few days with the use of heavy arms," the statement said.
The peacekeeping mission "reiterates its call for restraint to avoid unrest in the country and beyond," it added.
Earlier this month UNOCI said some 300 people had been killed in Ivory Coast since the presidential stand-off escalated in mid-December.
Meanwhile, hundreds of residents were fleeing Abobo on Thursday, many of them women and children. They were making their way on foot as no public transport was available because of the clashes.
A spokesman for Gbagbo\’s government on Thursday accused "rebels" supporting his rival of launching an operation against the FDS.
The fleeing residents were moving down the side of a broad road towards the Yopougon district, a Gbagbo stronghold in the southwest. They carried their few belongings in bags and sacks, and women carried kitchen utensils in plastic bowls on their heads.
A priest explained why he and his family of about a dozen were fleeing the fighting. "The children are traumatised, they start crying at the slightest sound. We can\’t take any more," he told AFP.
He said that the district known as "PK18", at the heart of the combat zone, "is being emptied of people."
Several people from the area told AFP that FDS troops came to see them on Wednesday to ask them to leave their homes, which suggested that fighting would soon resume.
Government spokesman Ahoua Don Mello said there had been "an infiltration by rebels from the Golf," referring to the hotel where Ouattara has his base, to other parts of Abidjan.