ABIDJAN, Ivory Coast (AP) — A spokesman for Ivory Coast's entrenched incumbent leader said Friday a mysterious group calling themselves "invisible commandos" is commanded by the man who was internationally recognized as the winner of last year's presidential poll.
The group claimed to have killed 27 police and paramilitary forces loyal to incumbent Laurent Gbagbo earlier this week in the Abobo district of Abidjan. Daily battles with machine guns, grenades and rocket launchers have continued throughout the city ever since.
The United Nations has warned that this week's escalation is a breach of a six-year-old cease-fire and could hail the beginning of a new civil war.
On Friday, locals said four days of nearly continuous gunfire stopped around 5 a.m. in Abobo, which had been the flashpoint of the conflict. Not long afterward, streams of people fled the area with their families and possessions.
Gbagbo spokesman Ahoua Don Mello called the fighters who've taken up arms in Abobo "terrorists" and said they were drawn from the group of rebels allied with opposition leader Alassane Ouattara, who was internationally recognized as the poll's winner but has been forced to govern from a local hotel because Gbagbo remains inside the presidency.
"These rebels were living in the Golf (Hotel) with Alassane Ouattara and they left to infiltrate the pro-Ouattara neighborhoods," he said. "Now they are trying to start a revolution."
Ouattara's camp denies any connection with the commandos. Spokesman Patrick Achi says they are citizens tired of police attacks who are defending themselves.
"The people of Abobo have been subject to the worst police brutality, killings and harassment for the last two years, they're fed up," he said, adding that he believes they got their weapons from dead police and soldiers.
Locals say the commandos wear magic amulets that they believe protect them from bullets. Their leader, they said, is called Commander "Fonyant," which means "wind" in the Malinke language — because his presence can be felt, but not seen.
Violence has intensified this week, both in Abidjan and in the west of the country, almost three months after both men claimed victory in the presidential poll.
It was not possible to verify death tolls from this week's fighting, because access to the areas where the fighting is occurring is cut off by police and army roadblocks. At least nine protesters were killed over the weekend, before the fighting intensified.
"The shooting and explosions have been going on all week," said Isaac Traore, who was fleeing Abobo with his family on foot. "As soon as it stopped, we left to go stay with my aunt."
In the group of 12 people, the men carried plastic bags and backpacks, the women babies on their backs and bundles on their heads.
There will be little room for them all in their aunt's small apartment, "but it's better then being killed," Traore said.
Ouattara was proclaimed victor by the electoral commission and the United Nations, which supervised the election according to a 2005 peace agreement. Shortly afterward, the constitutional council invalidated more than half a million votes and declared Gbagbo the winner. Most countries, however, have recognized Ouattara's victory.
An African Union mediation panel that visited Abidjan earlier this week is due to announce a resolution to the crisis by Monday. The resolution is said to be binding on both parties, though it's unclear how it would be enforced.
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