ABIDJAN, Mar 8 – More deadly violence erupted in Ivory Coast Tuesday after a rally by followers of the internationally recognised president, as his defiant rival Laurent Gbagbo snubbed an African Union mediation bid.
At least three men and a woman were the latest victims of an increasingly bloody post-electoral crisis, which the UN fears could become a full-blown civil war, when they were shot dead in Abidjan\’s Treichville neighbourhood.
According to medics and AFP correspondents at the scene, the four were killed in violence which flared following a rally by hundreds of supporters of Alassane Ouattara, who was Gbagbo\’s challenger in November\’s run-off.
Several other people were wounded in the violence which comes only days after seven women were shot dead at a similar a rally last week.
Witnesses also said that a police bus was torched in Tuesday\’s flare-up which again underlined how the situation is deteriorating while the continent\’s leaders struggle to persuade Gbagbo to relinquish the presidency.
A Republican Guard member, speaking on condition of anonymity, said some of his colleagues chased young demonstrators "armed with Kalashnikovs".
"If there were deaths, it is not because of us," he said, adding that the youths had also looted several shops.
"A shopkeeper fired on the young people in order to protect his businesss," he said.
Witnesses also said some locals were hit by stray police bullets.
Although both Ouattara and Gbagbo have been invited to Thursday\’s talks at AU headquarters in Addis Ababa, Gbagbo\’s Ivorian Popular Front party said their man would not attend "because of the deterioration of the domestic security situation".
The incumbent has refused to hand power to Ouattara, who is internationally regarded as the winner of the run-off election, despite mediation, sanctions and the threat of intervention.
Instead, party leader Pascal Affi N\’Guessan and Gbagbo foreign minister Alcide Djedje had left for the Ethiopian capital to attend the meeting, spokesman Eric Ane told AFP.
The African Union invited the rivals to talks in its latest bid to end a dispute that has deteriorated into the worst conflict since clashes in 2004, with at least 370 people killed since mid-December, according to UN figures.
Tens of thousands have also fled, with 75,000 entering Liberia and 200-300,000 leaving their homes in the main city Abidjan, the UN refugee agency said Thursday.
Ouattara, holed up in Abidjan\’s Golf Hotel under a blockade by forces loyal to Gbagbo, has accepted the invitation to Thursday\’s meeting, which will include five African presidents tasked with resolving the crisis.
He is protected by troops of a United Nations mission and the New Forces armed group, which controls the northern half of the country.
Also invited to the Ethiopian capital was Paul Yao N\’Dre, the head of the Constitutional Council that rejected the election commission\’s ruling that Gbagbo had lost the vote, backing his claims to still be in power.
However Yao N\’Dre was not seen at the airport with the two men headed to Ethiopia. It was not immediately possible to confirm if he was making the trip.
Fighting has intensified in recent days in Abidjan and the west of the country, where New Forces fighters allied with Ouattara wrested a town from Gbagbo\’s control at the weekend.
Demonstrators at Tuesday\’s rally carried placards that read "Gbagbo out", "Gbagbo assassin, leave power" and "Yes to ADO", a reference to Ouattara\’s initials.
Sustained gunfire was heard following the march in Treichville. Police reinforcements arrived in buses, shops shut and traffic was halted.
"We were in the church (for a memorial mass for the seven dead women) when we heard the shooting," a march organiser told AFP.
"We shut the church doors, we did not know what was happening outside. When things calmed down, I asked the women to go home."
Ivory Coast has been divided between north and south since a foiled coup bid against Gbagbo in 2002, after which the rebel New Forces took control of half the country.
November\’s election, postponed several times since 2005, was meant to restore stability in the world\’s leading cocoa producer.
Gbagbo on Monday ordered his government to take control of the cocoa sector, so far dominated by multinational companies. He also controls the security forces.
US State Department spokesman Philip Crowley said Gbagbo\’s plan "amounts to theft" and was "another desperate act in his campaign to cling to power".
Ivory Coast accounts for 40 percent of global cocoa supplies, valued at $4.5 billion (3.3 billion euros) a year at current prices, according to London\’s Financial Times.