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Ivory Coast Violence Turns To Massacre

DAVID GREENE, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm David Greene.

The battle for the leadership of Ivory Coast is raging on the streets of Abidjan today. Forces loyal to Alassane Ouattara, who won last November's presidential election, are in the city making a final push to try and oust the incumbent president, Laurent Gbagbo. He's refused to leave office and his own forces fighting desperately to hang on to the presidential palace.

The showdown between the two camps comes in the wake of news on Saturday that hundreds of people were massacred in a town in Ivory Coast's cocoa-producing region. It's not yet known who carried out those murders and why.

We're joined on the line by Associated Press reporter Marco Chown Oved, who's in Abidjan. Good morning.

Mr. MARCO CHOWN OVED (Reporter, Associated Press): Good morning.

GREENE: Tell us the latest on the situation on the ground. You actually have filed a report that forces loyal to Alassane Ouattara, the recognized winner of the presidential election, are making a final push now.

Mr. OVED: Well, what we really should put an emphasis on here is that these forces loyal to Alassane Ouattara were able to take 80, 90 percent of the country in two or three days. They swept across the country meeting almost no resistance, that is until they arrived here on the doorstep of the biggest city, Abidjan. Since then, we've been expecting the city to fall at any moment but now it's the fourth day since the siege of Abidjan began.

And while there is still continued fighting, we hear the explosions of mortars and the sort of rat-tat-tat of automatic gunfire. The city's still being fought for neighborhood-by-neighborhood, and I guess most importantly, the president, Laurent Gbagbo still controls the television and both the presidential palaces.

GREENE: And speaking of the presidential palace, is that where we think the incumbent president who's refusing to leave, Laurent Gbagbo, is actually and is he in there and any chance that he'll surrender at some point?

Mr. OVED: What he's definitely said that he has no intention of surrendering. He has repeated it on television. His advisers, every time we speak to them, will tell us that: that this is not a question of surrendering. But as far as exact location, that is, of course, a big mystery. His advisers say that he is inside the presidential palace but we've had conflicting reports about seeing cars and convoys, even boats, leaving.

So, it's unclear whether he's still there, but images of him at the presidential palace with his family and his advisers sort of sitting around having coffee and slapping each other on the back as if nothing was going on are being played on repeat on state television this morning.

GREENE: And, Marco, the numbers we've gotten over this weekend have been startling. I mean, the U.N. and various aid groups are reporting anywhere between 300, maybe up to 1,000 people killed in one town. Tell us the town. Tell us if there's anything new that we know about who is responsible and why this violence took place there.

Mr. OVED: Well, it's a complex story. It happened right at the beginning of the rebel offensive. So, while everyone was watching them sweep across the country we had sort of stopped looking at the town where they originally started, which is Duekoue, a town of about 50,000 people in the west of the country. Between 800 and 1,000 bodies have been found now in that city, though it's really both sides here now accusing each other of the atrocity.

Laurent Gbagbo says that this is what rebels do when they take a town, and then Alassane Ouattara has said this is what the Liberian mercenaries, who work for Laurent Gbagbo have done once we left town. I think that one thing is for sure is that this town and this region, the western region on the border with Liberia, it's a very violent and volatile region that has a long history of sort of interethnic violence.

And at least one charity, the Vatican-based Caritas, has said that this is due to inter-communal violence and it isn't on either side to have done the crimes.

GREENE: Marco Chown Oved is a reporter for the Associated Press, and he joined us from Abidjan in Ivory Coast. Marco, thank you.

Mr. OVED: Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.