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Shades of civil war seen in Ivory Coast

By Mariano Castillo, CNN
Fighters supporting presidential challenger Alassane Ouattara park next to a road Tuesday in Duekoue, Ivory Coast.
Fighters supporting presidential challenger Alassane Ouattara park next to a road Tuesday in Duekoue, Ivory Coast.
  • Confrontations between self-declared president and challenger becoming bloodier
  • In some cases, cities are changing hands
  • The country is inching toward civil war, experts say
  • Gbagbo supporters say this is not the case

(CNN) -- As the world's attention is focused on the conflict in Libya, another African country -- the Ivory Coast on Africa's west coast -- may be sliding toward another bloody civil war, according to observers who keep a close eye on warring factions there.

And, they contend, this war could be bloodier than the civil war the country emerged from just four years ago.

In the most recent developments, the city of Bondoukou in eastern Ivory Coast fell into the hands of rebel fighters who support challenger Alassane Ouattara and fight under the name Republican Forces. The international community recognizes Ouattara as the winner of the presidential election, but Laurent Gbagbo claims he won re-election and has refused to step aside.

According to supporters of Ouattara, pro-Gbagbo "mercenaries and militias" launched an attack against in the city of Bouna. In response, the fighters pushed the pro-Gbagbo forces back into and out of Bondoukou. Located in the northeast of the country, Bondoukou, the capital of the administrative region of Zanzan, was the second city occupied by rebels Monday.

Also, the United Nations reported that one of its helicopters was fired on during a reconnaissance flight. They blamed the attack on Ouattara's Republican Forces. It was unclear why their forces would fire at the U.N.

Gbagbo's refusal to cede power has created a stalemate that has some of those who watch the country convinced the Ivory Coast, which emerged from civil war in 2007, is slipping back.

"I do think we are moving much closer to civil war. It is almost a civil war as it is," Alex Vines, head of the Africa Program at Chatham House, told CNN. "That's what everyone is preparing for."

Repeated attempts by the international community, including the African Union, to resolve the impasse through means such as a power-sharing agreement, have been rejected by Gbagbo.

"It's a very pessimistic scenario," Vines said.

One could call what is happening a civil war if the situation intensifies into all-out fighting, he said. If the rebels take the port of San Pedro or make a move for the commercial capital, Abidjan, fighting would also increase, he said.

Richard Downie, deputy director of the Africa Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, agreed that more violence is likely and predicted it would be more intense.

"I would say we are in the early stages of a civil war again," he told CNN.

The Forces Nouvelles, the rebel group that supports Ouattara and his Republican Forces, is "taking matters into their own hands," he said.

Another civil war would be a disaster for the country, Downie said, and would be more bloody than the last one.

"It would be a whole lot more violent and more bloody because people are more hardened in their positions," he said.

Nearly 1 million residents have fled Abidjan and others are displaced from their homes elsewhere, according to the United Nations.

Earlier this month, at least 25 people were killed in what the U.N. condemned as a shocking escalation in violence.

Nonetheless, Pascal Kokora, a former Ivorian ambassador to the United States and senior adviser to Gbagbo, said that civil war does not describe what is happening in his country.

Ouattara's forces are actually foreign mercenaries who are being armed by the outside powers, Kokora alleges. He accused the rebels of burning villages and taking in fighters from Burkina Faso, Mali and Nigeria.

"The premise of civil war is not true because this is not Ivorians killing Ivorians," he contended.

And support for Gbagbo remains strong, he said, citing a rally in Abidjan over the weekend that drew half a million supporters. The other experts cast doubt on the version of events disseminated by Gbagbo's people.

But Kokora said the Western media are portraying the situation as a civil war to bolster the arguments for intervention by foreign governments.

"The international community doesn't want to abide by the constitution of the country," he said.

Before the country reaches the point of full-out civil war, the possibility remains that the increasing isolation that Gbagbo is facing will pressure him to find a resolution, Jeanne Toungara, a history professor at Howard University, told CNN.

As political support dwindles for Gbagbo even in Africa, he will "make a decision ultimately that he has no place to go," she predicted.