, ABIDJAN, Mar 13 – Troops loyal to Ivory Coast strongman Laurent Gbagbo went on a rampage, randomly shelling an area of Abidjan in what his rival\’s camp insisted was a show of force as his power dwindles.
As international sanctions cut off his funding and tightened the noose around his command, Gbago troops moved against its opponents in the Abobo district in northern Abidjan.
An official of the Defence and Security Forces (FDS) loyal to Gbagbo said the major offensive was "to rid Abobo of terrorists. It\’s make or break."
But Patric Achi, spokesman for Gbagbo\’s rival the internationally recognised president Alassane Ouattara, told AFP that the FDS was "blindly launching artillery, which fell on civilian houses.
"The majority of those killed are innocent," he added.
"Gbagbo forces are in this mindset of blind murder because they are cornered. They have their backs against the wall," he added.
"It\’s a desperate offensive, it\’s crazy. We have the impression that they want the population to pay… The spectre of civil war, of arousing terror is all that remains for them."
Abobo, a stronghold of support for Ouattara, has seen several demonstrations in favour of their leader and according to residents has in recent days seen as surge in the presence of fighters backing him
The fresh bloodshed came as Ouattara himself continued his foreign tour to gather support from African leaders.
He held talks with the current head of regional bloc ECOWAS, Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan, late Friday in Abuja.
Earlier in Addis Ababa, Ouattara had met a panel of African presidents tasked by the African Union (AU) with finding a lasting solution to the Ivory Coast crisis.
The AU on Thursday endorsed Ouattara\’s victory, a move immediately rejected by Gbagbo\’s camp, who refuse to admit their man lost last November\’s presidential election.
Ouattara was due to leave Nigeria Saturday for Burkina Faso and Senegal, a delegation source said.
He is to brief President Blaise Compaore of Burkina Faso, a former mediator in the Ivory Coast crisis, and Senegal\’s President Abdoulaye Wade, on his meetings in the Ethiopian capital and Nigeria, said the source.
Gbagbo supporters on Saturday said that Ouattara was free to return to Ivory Coast whenever he wished.
"He is an Ivorian, he has the right to come and go at any time. He is totally and entirely free to return to Ivory Coast," said Ahoua Don Mello, a spokesman for Gbagbo, who has refused to concede defeat to Ouattara since the November 28 run-off presidential election.
"We have no interest in undermining the security of a political leader, that would aggravate the situation," he added.
Heavy gunfire could be heard on Saturday in Abobo and from the neighbouring district of Cocody, which is home to Gbagbo and where the country\’s public television is also based, residents said.
A statement from Gbagbo broadcast on state television late Saturday, urged the population to stay calm and said that he would make a national address shortly.
One resident told AFP he had seen four tanks, four troops carriers filled with soldiers, and two pick-ups with mortars on the streets of the neighbourhood.
The official with Gbagbo\’s FDS forces said they had used two Puma helicopters, mortars and armoured cars in the operation.
Residents said the pro-Ouattara rebels in the district were using Kalashnikov rifles and mortars.
Close to the Abobo railway station, there were exchanges of fire between armoured vehicles and men armed with Kalashnikovs, another local resident said. "Shopkeepers have closed down, they are running home."
Elsewhere in Abidjan, a Ghanaian member of the United Nations mission to Ivory Coast (ONUCI) was injured when a group of young people attacked and set fire to his vehicle, a spokesman said.
Several witnesses had identified the attackers as young Gbagbo supporters.
European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton meanwhile welcomed the AU\’s endorsement of Ouattara, adding that she called on "all Ivorian parties to implement the AU\’s decision, which has my full support."