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Forces Blockade Presidential Residence In Ivory Coast

A local resident walks past forces soldiers loyal to Alassane  Ouattara as they share a morning meal.
A local resident walks past forces soldiers loyal to Alassane Ouattara as they share a morning meal.

Ivory Coast's democratically elected leader imposed a blockade Friday around the presidential residence where the country's entrenched strongman remains holed up underground and said he'll focus on normalizing life in this corpse-strewn, terrorized city.

As the military standoff dragged on Friday in Abidjan, there were new concerns about tensions erupting into deadly violence in the country's west.

The U.N. said the bodies of more than 100 people were found in the past 24 hours. Some of the victims had been burned alive, while others were thrown down a well.

"All the incidents appear at least partly ethnically motivated," said Rupert Colville, spokesman for the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights in Geneva.

Colville said Liberian mercenaries from across Ivory Coast's western border were very likely responsible for the killings. Liberia is still recovering from its own devastating civil war, and human-rights groups have expressed concern that Liberian ex-combatants were going to Ivory Coast as hired guns.

The International Rescue Committee is warning that chaos is permeating this West African nation once split in two by a 2002-2003 civil war, citing an "explosive mix of political, economic and ethnic tension."

"We're concerned that looting, hostility, bloodshed, reprisal killings and sexual assaults will escalate in communities across the country," said Louis Falcy, the IRC's country director in Ivory Coast.

Alassane Ouattara, the internationally recognized winner of November's presidential election, said on TV late Thursday that his forces are setting up a security perimeter around the presidential compound where Laurent Gbagbo is staying with his family. Ouattara said the goal is to wait for Gbagbo, who insists he won the vote, to run out of food and water.

Ouattara said his troops will work to secure Abidjan, where people have hidden inside their homes this week amid heavy fighting between troops loyal to Ouattara and those who are with Gbagbo. Ivory Coast's biggest city and commercial center were deserted Friday. Military vehicles had to negotiate around bodies lying in the streets. An untold number of fighters and civilians have been killed in Abidjan in the past week.

"It is the stubbornness of the outgoing president that has plunged the city of Abidjan into this grave humanitarian and security crisis," Ouattara said.

U.N. and French forces have been attacking Gbagbo's weapons arsenal, which has been used against civilians during the four-month-long political standoff.

France's embassy in Ivory Coast said the ambassador's residence was hit Friday by two mortars and a rocket fired from positions held by forces loyal to Gbagbo. It was unclear if there were any injuries or casualties. It was the second such attack in 48 hours.

In his speech, Ouattara also sought to jump-start the economy of the world's largest cocoa producer, calling for banks to reopen Monday and for the European Union to lift sanctions so that cocoa exports can resume, even as U.N. and French forces continue evacuating thousands of foreigners from Abidjan neighborhoods to guarded camps.

The U.N. said peacekeepers and human-rights officials discovered about 60 bodies in the western town of Guiglo. Colville said an additional 40 corpses were found lying in the street in Blolequin, and many of them had been shot.

Fifteen other bodies were found in Duekoue, where international aid groups reported mass killings of up to 1,000 people last week.

On Thursday, Gbagbo continued to insist he had won the elections and stressed he would never leave the West African country he has ruled for the past 10 years. Even before the November elections, he had overstayed his mandate by five years by continually postponing the vote.

"I reached the head of state and his wife less than an hour ago and no, he will not surrender. President Gbagbo will not cede," his adviser Toussaint Alain said by telephone from Paris. "It's a question of principle. President Gbagbo is not a monarch. He is not a king. He is not an emperor. He is a president elected by his people."

Gbagbo was declared the loser both by his country's electoral body and by international observers including the United Nations. After four months of diplomacy, Ouattara gave the go-ahead for a military intervention led by fighters from a former rebel group. U.N. and French forces joined the effort this week.

Ouattara's forces stormed the gates of Gbagbo's home on Wednesday. But the group has stopped short of killing the entrenched leader, a move that could stoke the rage of his supporters. Some 46 percent of Ivorians voted for Gbagbo.

French Defense Minister Gerard Longuet estimates that Gbagbo has some 1,000 troops, compared with the 2,000-strong force that has been fighting to install Ouattara.

"This will be over very soon," Ouattara's envoy to the U.N., Youssoufou Bamba, said in New York. But such predictions over the past week have proved wrong.

He said when Gbagbo is taken "he will be alive and well. He wants to be a martyr. We won't allow [his death] to happen."

NPR's Ofeibea Quist-Arcton reported from Accra, Ghana, for this story, which contains material from The Associated Press

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