Ivory Coast calm as rivals hold positions

Fighters loyal to Ivory Coast presidential rivals Laurent Gbagbo and Alassane Ouattara held onto positions around the main city Abidjan on Sunday, a day that saw less fighting than the previous three.

Following the three days of pitched battles, Reuters correspondents and witnesses said the main city in the world's top cocoa-growing nation was calm, with sporadic gunfire and explosions heard in some neighbourhoods.

Forces loyal to presidential claimant Ouattara are battling to forcefully remove Gbagbo, who has refused to step down after a disputed election that has rekindled a civil war it was meant to end.

"There was an attack planned (on Saturday) on the presidential residence, but it didn't happen, possibly because of the human shield (Young Patriots) around it," a Western diplomat said.

"But it seems to have started up again. I'm hearing some booms from the direction of RTI (state television)," the diplomat told Reuters early on Sunday.

The relative lull in fighting allowed residents to venture out in search for food and water while others went to church to pray.

After swiftly taking control of swathes of the country, pro-Ouattara forces have met fierce resistance over the past three days in Abidjan where troops loyal to Gbagbo have held on to positions around the presidential palace, Gbagbo's residence, and the state television.

Initially suffering heavy defeats and defections among the top ranks in his army, Gbagbo counts about 3,000 republican guards, some loyal soldiers and his youth wing, the Young Patriots, who have responded to calls to form a human chain around the presidential palace and Gbagbo's residence.

The fighting has brought the number of people killed since the post-election violence began in November to more than 1,300 with reports of carnage in the west of the country in which aid organisations said more than 1,000 people were killed.

The United Nations mission in Ivory Coast (ONUCI) said on Saturday that traditional hunters known as Dozos had joined Ouattara's forces in killing 330 people in the western town of Duekoue. Ouattara rejected allegations that his forces took part in the massacre of the civilians.

The International Committee of the Red Cross said on Saturday that at least 800 people were killed in intercommunal violence in Duekoue this week. It is not clear whether the 330 counted by ONUCI is included in that figure.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said in a conversation late on Saturday with Ouattara he was "concerned and alarmed" about reports pro-Ouattara forces may have killed civilians. Ouattara told him his forces were not involved in the killings.

France said its forces took over Abidjan airport to facilitate the evacuation of foreigners and sent an additional 300 troops to Ivory Coast, bringing its total deployment to 1,500.

France's Defence Minister Gerard Longuet said evacuation of its 12,000 citizens in Ivory Coast was under consideration.

"This is a question which is being asked and which will be settled in the next few hours," Longuet said in an interview on French television LCI.

At Abidjan airport, a security source said he saw French forces bringing in reinforcements. "There were seven big planes and I counted 50 armoured vehicles," he said.

In Paris, armed forces spokesman Colonel Thierry Burkhard said that by taking over the airport, France had "control over the airspace (which) allows those who wish to leave the country to do so".

Around 1,600 foreigners, of whom about half are French, have taken refuge at a French military camp close to the airport.

"Currently, the threat to security stems from the fact that there are nearly no policemen or security forces in the streets (of Abidjan)," Burkhard said.

Burkhard said about 170 foreigners of varied nationalities took military flights from Abidjan to Dakar in Senegal and Lome in Togo on Sunday, but added it was not an evacuation per se.

A military source in Dakar said 48 French citizens and four Belgians would be arriving in Dakar on a military flight at 2100 GMT from Abidjan but did not specify if they were among the 170.

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