ABIDJAN, Ivory Coast – Rebels fighting to install Ivory Coast’s democratically elected president began besieging the main city of Abidjan on Thursday as the top army commander fled his post in the face of a lightning offensive that saw several towns and a seaport quickly fall.
Alassane Ouattara, whom the United Nations and Ivory Coast’s own electoral council declared the winner of November presidential elections, said the rebels will “re-establish democracy and enforce the choice of the people.”
Incumbent Laurent Gbagbo has refused to step down and recognize the result of the election. But even a rebel onslaught on the country’s commercial capital will not force him to do so, said Toussaint Alain, one of his advisers.
“He will not resign in the wake of this attack. He is not going to abdicate. He is not going to lay down his arms,” Alain said. “He will stay in power to lead the resistance to this attack against Ivory Coast organized by France, the United States and the United Nations.”
United Nations radio announced that the port of San Pedro, 190 miles (300 kilometers) west of Abidjan, was taken by rebels late Wednesday. Residents said by telephone that soldiers retreated in trucks while firing into the air as the rebels moved in. Hours earlier the rebels took the capital, Yamoussoukro, in central Ivory Coast
In Abidjan, rebels already in control of several northern districts of the city attacked a prison and freed the inmates, a rebel commander said. The rebels also advanced into Yopougon, a district of Abidjan that fervently supports Gbagbo, witnesses said.
The rebel army is on the periphery of Abidjan, said a close aide to Ouattara.
“They will enter the city on multiple fronts, from multiple directions,” said the adviser, who asked not to be named because he is not authorized to speak to the press. Rebels overnight also took Gbagbo’s hometown, the village of Mama, where the former president had built a lavish villa, the aide said.
“The rebels slept in Gbagbo’s bed,” he said.
At least 462 people have been killed and up to 1 million have fled their homes amid the postelection chaos.
Ouattara said Thursday on his private television station that the rebels, who fought in a vicious civil war almost a decade ago that left the country divided with the rebels holding the north, were attacking to install him in the presidency. Ouattara had repeatedly asked for international military intervention, which never came.
“In order to end the escalation of violence in our country and in keeping with their mission to protect the population against militias and mercenaries under Gbagbo’s control, (the rebels) have decided to re-establish democracy and enforce the choice of the people,” he said.
Ivory Coast’s army chief of staff, Gen. Phillippe Mangou, sought refuge at the home of the South African ambassador in Abidjan with his wife and five children, South Africa’s foreign ministry said Thursday.
Advancing on foot while firing into the air, the rebels set up roadblocks on one of Yopougon’s main thoroughfares and have been battling with police since early Thursday morning, said a resident of the neighborhood of Abidjan who asked not to be named for fear of reprisals.
Across town in the predominantly pro-Ouattara Adjame district, several residents reported that pro-Gbagbo militiamen were firing weapons, though it was unclear at what.
The rebels have seized over a dozen towns since beginning their offensive on Monday. After they took the capital they did a victory lap in vehicles as people cheered and clapped.
They have faced almost no resistance but many fear that army troops still loyal to Gbagbo plan to make a final stand in Abidjan, the seaside city where the presidential palace is located.
Outtara’s whereabouts were not immediately known. He had been holed up for months in the lagoonside Golf Hotel in Abidjan, protected by United Nations peacekeeping troops. Ouattara, who is from the country’s north, had long tried to distance himself from the rebels.
Clayson Monyela, a South African foreign ministry official, said Mangou and his family were allowed to stay at the ambassador’s home in Abidjan “on humanitarian grounds,” but that no immediate decision has been made on whether to grant him asylum. He said South Africa’s foreign ministry is consulting with unnamed parties in Ivory Coast, West African regional leaders, the African Union and the U.N. on Mangou’s move.
South African President Jacob Zuma has been a key mediator as the African Union sought to find a peaceful way to install Ouattara as president.
On Wednesday, the U.N. Security Council unanimously demanded an immediate end to the escalating violence and imposed sanctions on Gbagbo and his inner circle.
Gbagbo and Ouattarahave vied for the presidency for months, with Ouattara using his considerable international clout to try to financially and diplomatically suffocate Gbagbo.
Seydou Ouattara, a spokesman for the rebels who is not related to the political leader, said that they faced so little resistance because Gbagbo had tried to neuter the army. Diplomats and human rights groups have said that Gbagbo has enlisted Liberian mercenaries and has armed militias, because he did not trust the regular army.
“He recruited mercenaries. He recruited militias. He essentially told the army we have no confidence in you. We were able to use this to our advantage,” said Seydou Ouattara. “In each town, we told the soldiers, we are your brothers. We want the same thing.