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Ivory Coast showdown leads to media closures

ABIDJAN, Mar 1 – The Ivory Coast power struggle between strongman Laurent Gbagbo and internationally recognised president Alassane Ouattara led eight newspapers to close Tuesday, complaining of harassment.

Tensions remained high in Abidjan meanwhile after clashes between forces of both sides, as the United Nations stepped up its criticism of Gbagbo after his men opened fire on UN workers and briefly detained others.

Partisan and outspoken, the Ivorian press has been a witness and a protagonist in the showdown that began after a November 28 vote that the election authority says Gbagbo lost, although he has refused to step down.

Owners of eight papers in Ouattara\’s camp announced that they were suspending publication "until further notice", largely because of police harassment.

The papers included leading titles Le Patriote, Nord-Sud and Le Nouveau Reveil, whose joint spokesman Dembele Al Seni said, "Our journalists are constantly at risk of death."

In another media casualty, the signal RTI public television, a pillar of Gbagbo\’s regime, was cut on Sunday after its transmitter was damaged in clashes between forces loyal to Gbagbo and another faction.

The fighting was in the pro-Ouattara Abobo neighbourhood of northern Abidjan, and followed days of clashes that have forced hundreds to flee the area.

Residents were nervous Tuesday but reported no new clashes. "The night was peaceful," one told AFP.

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Some parts of Abobo, which has about 1.5 million residents, "are literally emptying of their population," UN humanitarian coordinator Ndolamb Ngokwey said in a statement.

"The bodies strewn on the streets must be buried, as soon as possible."

At Koumassi, in the south, residents reported sustained shooting during the night and pro-Gbagbo youths, some armed with clubs, manned road blocks in the morning and searched cars.

Similar incidents took place at Yopougon in the west, another Gbagbo bastion.

At Adjame in the north, young pro-Ouattara supporters turned out early Tuesday to burn tyres in the streets, before dispersing when troops from the Defence and Security Forces siding with Gbagbo arrived.

Tensions also rose between the United Nations and Gbagbo\’s camp, which accuses the UN force of about 10,500 men in the country of allying with fighters from the former New Forces rebel group that backs Ouattara.

The UN mission monitors a ceasefire between the army and the New Forces, who have controlled the north of the country since a foiled coup against Gbagbo in 2002.

Gbagbo forces on Monday opened fire on UN sanctions experts at the airport in the political capital Yamoussoukro who were trying to check if military equipment was entering in the country in breach of an embargo, a UN source said.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon accused Belarus of breaking the embargo by sending three attack helicopters and other equipment to Gbagbo and the team went to the airport to check on the allegations.

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Belarus denied the charges and Gbagbo\’s government denounced "a lie to justify an attack" by UN forces.

Tensions were further heightened when Gbagbo supporters briefly kidnapped two Ukrainian UN workers, the UN said, although details had yet to be established.

Ban and US President Barack Obama meanwhile "expressed their concern about the violence there (in the Ivory Coast) and the need to enable the legitimately elected president to be able to govern," US ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice said Monday.

"The winner of the election in Cote d\’Ivoire is Mr Ouattara, and Mr Gbagbo should cede power to preserve peace and stability and the future of Cote d\’Ivoire," Ban said later.


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