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Gbagbo Army Calls for Reinforcements in Battle for Abidjan

Smoke rises from the city center of Abidjan, April 2, 2011

Smoke rises from the city center of Abidjan, April 2, 2011

Soldiers backing Ivory Coast's incumbent president are calling for reinforcements in their battle against fighters supporting the country's internationally-recognized president. In the third day of combat for control of the commercial capital, Abidjan, Human Rights Watch is calling on both sides to respect the rights of civilians.

Supporters of incumbent president Laurent Gbagbo used state-run television to call for reinforcements in their battle against forces backing Ivory Coast's internationally-recognized president Alassane Ouattara.

Gbagbo militant Damane Picasse says they are fighting against foreign powers, the United Nations, mercenaries, and the West African regional alliance. He is calling on everyone in the Abidjan neighborhoods of Cocody and Yopougon - men, women, and children - to defend the Gbagbo presidency.

Gbagbo supporters regained control of state-run television after if was briefly forced off the air and used it to call on all members of the armed forces to join what they say are five units still fighting in Abidjan.

Many of those troops have already defected to Ouattara's side. Gbagbo's army chief of staff took his wife and children to seek refuge in the home of the South African ambassador.

While pro-Ouattara fighters met little resistance in taking the political capital Yamoussoukro and the port of San Pedro, Gbagbo clearly has far-more-determined defenders in Abidjan. As the fight breaks down into neighborhood-by-neighborhood combat, Human Rights Watch is calling on both sides to protect the rights of civilians.

Corinne Dufka heads the Human Rights Watch West Africa office. "The potential for reprisals is quite high, so we are asking that Mr. Ouattara's coalition of forces respect international humanitarian law, ensure that any prisoners that are taken are not summarily executed that they are put in a proper detention facility, and that there are no reprisal killing against civilians who they believe or who did support Laurent Gbagbo," she said.

Dufka says ensuring overall discipline may be complicated by the amalgam of fighters coalescing behind Mr. Ouattara.

"The military forces fighting with Alassane Ouattara are made up of a loose coalition that includes Force Nouvelle rebels who were formerly based in the north," she said. "They include police, gendarmes, and soldiers who have recently defected from Gbagbo's side over to Ouattara's side. And they include as well neighborhood-based civil defense forces which have sprung up over the last couple months. So we are asking that he take proactive measures to ensure that those forces are disciplined, to make sure they have the proper directives to respect international humanitarian law and human rights."

Dufka says pro-Gbagbo forces must also respect those rights. "Yesterday we documented a number of cases in two neighborhoods in which Gbagbo's military were firing out at the civilian population," she said. 'That is in Treichville and near the airport in the Port-Bouet neighborhood."

"In Treichville, that is the base of the Republican Guard, they were firing into the population probably to prevent an advance by Ouattara's forces. The same thing in Port-Bouet. That kind of reckless fire and firing out into the population must be avoided. If there is to be fighting, it needs to be between armed men from one side and armed men from the other side," she added.

The United Nations mission in Ivory Coast says more than 400 people were killed in fighting in western provinces last week, most of them by forces backing Ouattara. The International Committee of the Red Cross says at least 800 people were killed last Tuesday alone.

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