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Pro Gbagbo supporters hold massive rally in Abidjan

ABIDJAN, Mar 27 – Thousands of supporters of Ivory Coast strongman Laurent Gbagbo were holding an overnight rally in Abijdan Sunday, as international efforts intensified to stop the slide towards civil war.

Ivory Coast\’s internationally recognised president Alassane Ouattara meanwhile rejected the African Union\’s latest choice to mediate the crisis, citing the envoy\’s "personal relations" with Gbagbo.

The rally came as the UN Security Council examines a draft resolution demanding Gbagbo\’s departure and more powers for UN peacekeepers to protect civilians, as concern mounts over the increasing bloodshed.

In the heart of the economic capital Abidjan, thousands of people, mostly youths, gathered in front of the presidential palace late Saturday for an all-night rally, a show of force by the embattled Gbagbo.

Loud music blared from speakers and supporters brandished Ivorian flags and placards with pro-Gbagbo slogans.

The rally\’s organiser, Charles Ble Goude, Gbagbo\’s fiery youth minister and leader of the militant "Young Patriots", arrived to loud cheers, carrying a mattress on his back.

"Before attacking Laurent Gbagbo, you will (have to) cut the throats of all these people here," he said, addressing the international community.

"There will be no civil war," he shouted, denouncing French President Nicolas Sarkozy, US President Barack Obama, the United Nations and the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS).

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"If Alassane Ouattara had the means to take Abidjan he would have taken it long ago," said Ble Goude.

Ble Goude, known as "General of the Streets" for his ability to muster massive crowds, said "more than 100,000" youths had registered to enlist in Gbagbo\’s army. A week ago he had called for young people "willing to die for their country" to step forward.

But while Pascal Affi N\’Guessan, the head of Gbagbo\’s political party, denounced Ouattara as "a mercenary in the service of Western imperialism", Ble Goude renewed a call for talks to end the crisis.

A statement from Ouattara late Saturday however rejected the African Union\’s choice of Cape Verde\’s former foreign minister Jose Brito as its envoy to mediate Gbagbo\’s departure.

Ouattara expressed surprise that Brito had been selected "given his personal relationship and his political connection .. with the incumbent President Laurent Gbagbo."

Earlier this month, the African Union recognised Ouattara as the winner of last November\’s presidential election, but asked him to help find a "graceful exit" for Gbagbo.

The UN Security Council met Friday to discuss a draft resolution introduced by France and Nigeria to impose a heavy weapons ban in Abidjan.

"Law and order is collapsing, humanitarian access is more and more difficult, hospitals are closing," France\’s ambassador to the United Nations, Gerard Araud, said in New York on Friday.

"We are very, very close to a civil war in Abidjan."

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US President Barack Obama said late Friday that if Gbagbo and his supporters continued to cling to power, it would "lead to more violence, more innocent civilians being wounded and killed and more diplomatic and economic isolation."

The Ouattara stronghold of Abobo in northern Abidjan remains the epicentre of the fighting, as pro-Ouattara fighters attempt to break out into surrounding suburbs held by Gbagbo\’s troops.

The international community has already condemned Gbagbo forces for the shelling of an Abobo market earlier this month, which killed up to 30 people.

Half of northern Ivory Coast — an area controled by pro-Ouattara forces — has been without electricity and water since Wednesday, residents reported Saturday, the second massive outage this month.

Clashes between forces loyal to the two rivals are estimated by the United Nations to have killed 52 people in the last week, with a total death toll of at least 462 people.

The November 28 presidential run-off vote was supposed to end a decade of political turmoil which divided the world\’s top cocoa producer into a rebel-held north and Gbagbo-controlled south after a failed coup in 2002.


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