ABIDJAN – Fighting from town to another, a militia war is raging in Ivory Coast as a political deadlock is deepening between incumbent president Laurent Gbagbo and rival Alassane Ouattara.
"The rebels took Toulepleu yesterday after combat that lasted the whole day,” Yao Yao, the chief of Gbagbo's Front for the Liberation of the Great West (FLGO) militia force, told Reuters on Monday, March 7.
“There were not enough of us to contain them this time as we were hugely outnumbered.”
Pro-Gbagbo fighters confirmed that reinforcements were on the way to take the town back.
"We retreated to Bloequin, from where we are preparing a counter-offensive,” Yao added.
“The military reinforcements arrived yesterday."
The urban warfare and western clashes have led to the United Nations warning that the world's biggest cocoa-producing country risks slipping back into civil war.
Ivory Coast was sent into a deep political crisis after last November’s disputed presidential election.
Ouattara, who was declared winner by the country’s election commission, is recognized by the UN and most of the international community as the winner of a November 28 presidential run-off in the West African nation.
Gbagbo, who has ruled the country since 2000 and has the support of the country’s armed forces, claims to have won the vote.
World powers and African states have heaped pressures on Gbagbo to cede the presidency to Ouattara.
The United States and European Union have imposed sanctions on Gbagbo and his inner circle, while the World Bank and the West African regional central bank have cut his financing in an attempt to weaken his grip on power.
Gbagbo's access to state accounts at West Africa's central bank has already been frozen, but he still controls taxes, customs and the lucrative oil and cocoa sectors.
Ouattara supporters accused Ivorian troops and youth supporters loyal to Gbagbo of pillaging their houses.
"There are a good 10 houses that have been looted up to now, including businessmen, officials," Ouattara advisor Amadou Coulibaly told Reuters, adding they had all been informed by the neighbours who witnessed it.
Ouattara's communications, sport and energy and mines ministers had all had their houses attacked, Coulibaly said.
He added it started three days ago.
All the officials in question are trapped in the lagoon-side Golf Hotel, where Ouattara's administration is guarded by UN peacekeepers and under siege by the Ivorian military.
Gbagbo's "Young Patriots", often armed with machetes, clubs or guns, have set up road blocks all over the main city in Abidjan after a call for their leader Ble Goude to hunt pro-Ouattara rebels and obstruct UN staff, whom he accuses of backing them.
Some have used the call as an excuse to rob motorists and two UN staff have been kidnapped but later released.
"I think my house was the first to be hit," said Ouattara's government spokesman Patrick Achi.
"They took my Mercedes, my 4x4 that I use for going to the bush, they looted my house, which is near the hotel checkpoint."But he added: "When you've been imprisoned for so long you get philosophical. When you see so many people dying, this is so much more important than a house or a car."