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Fresh clashes in I Coast as AU backs Ouattara

ABIDJAN, Mar 11 – Fresh fighting rocked Ivory Coast just hours after the African Union declared Alassane Ouattara the duly elected president, a decision angrily rejected by Laurent Gbagbo\’s camp.

Residents reported heavy arms fire in Tiebissou, a town near the line between zones controlled by the country\’s rival factions and near Ivory Coast\’s political capital Yamoussoukro.

"Heavy arms fire started toward 8:00 pm (2000 GMT)," one resident told AFP by phone, adding that the firing had continued into the night.

Two other witnesses confirmed the report, one of whom also spoke of sporadic fire from Kalashnikov assault rifles.

Hours earlier, in Addis Ababa, the African Union, having spent months trying to broker a resolution to the crisis, confirmed Ouattara\’s election as president last November.

"The measures that have been announced are binding," Ouattara said from Addis Ababa.

"Very soon, Laurent Gbagbo will have to leave the office he has usurped since November 28," he added.

Ouattara said the AU panel had asked him to form a broad government and provide the incumbent Gbagbo with an honourable exit.

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"I have accepted to do that in the interest of peace," he said.

But he made it clear that it would not be a 50-50 power-sharing arrangement.

A spokesman for Gbagbo however rejected the AU panel\’s proposals even before the formal meeting got under way.

"What is on offer is power-sharing and the very principle of it is unacceptable," Gbagbo spokesman Ahoua Don Mello said from Abidjan.

And former prime minister Pascal Affi N\’Guessan, who chairs Gbagbo\’s Ivorian Popular Front and is part of the delegation he sent to Addis Ababa, raised the spectre of violence if the world tried to impose Ouattara.

If the AU failed to come up with something convincing, he said, "we fear that the African Union will in a way contribute to completing the coup that began in 2002 and has evolved into an electoral coup with the latest presidential elections."

He was referring to an uprising against Gbagbo in 2002, while he was travelling outside the country, which triggered a deadly civil war.

Gbagbo has refused to accept defeat despite Ouattara being recognised by the international community.

And even before the latest clashes near Yamoussoukro, in the west of the country, his troops have for the last three weeks been fighting the New Forces (FN) fighters who back Ouattara.

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The level of violence has also been steadily rising in Abidjan.

Late Thursday, the house of a leading member of Gbagbo\’s camp, Damana Pickass, came under fire, Pickass and other sources reported. He said he had not been home, but said his brother had been slightly injured.

Pickass was a member of the electoral commission that organised the disputed presidential election. He famously ripped up copies of the provisional results as the commission\’s spokesman was about to announce them.

The West African bloc ECOWAS, led by Nigeria, has threatened to use force if Gbagbo does not step down. Gbagbo has gone to court to try to restrain ECOWAS.

During the three months of the dispute, Ouattara and his government-in-waiting have been holed up in Abidjan\’s Golf Hotel, surrounded by Gbagbo\’s troops but protected by UN peacekeepers.

Ouattara\’s immediate problem will be how to return to Ivory Coast from Ethiopia.

As soon as he flew out, Gbagbo banned all overflights and landings by UN and French forces in the country, a moved condemned by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon.

Ban "warns all parties that any attempt to disrupt flights conducted by the impartial forces is unacceptable," said his spokesman Martin Nesirky.

The world body\’s human rights chief on Thursday expressed alarm over the deteriorating situation.

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The violence had already left 392 people dead, including 27 in the past week, said Navi Pillay, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.

"Overall, the situation appears to be deteriorating alarmingly, with a sharp increase in inter-communal and inter-ethnic confrontations," she said.


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