ABIDJAN, Ivory Coast — Residents barricaded themselves inside their homes Sunday, blanketing windows and pushing furniture against doors as this country on Africa’s western coast tensely awaited the final battle between the two men who claim the presidency.
Fighters backing the internationally recognized president, Alassane Ouattara, amassed at a tollbooth on the city’s northern edge, preparing for the final assault. Their leader was declared the winner of last November’s election, but Ouattara has not been able to assume office because outgoing president Laurent Gbagbo is refusing to yield power.
Water has been cut off to much of Abidjan, and on the empty streets, a handful of women with basins could be seen hurriedly crossing the waterfront highway to reach the lagoon. Men ventured out with plastic bags to scoop up water, holding the bags high in the air to signal to soldiers in firing positions that they were not armed.
Only about 20 miles separates the thousands of pro-Ouattara foot soldiers readying for battle from the lagoonside district where the presidential palace and mansion are located.
A resident of the Cocody neighborhood where the mansion is located said around 700 Gbagbo supporters had gathered at the gates of the compound Sunday, after state television, still controlled by the entrenched ruler, called on the population to form a human shield to protect the presidential palace. The resident, who asked not to be named for fear of reprisal, said the supporters had been armed with AK-47 assault rifles.
Toussaint Alain, Gbagbo’s representative in Europe, told reporters in Paris that Gbagbo is not giving up.
“President Gbagbo, I have said, is at the residence of the head of state, his usual workplace, and he is managing the crisis with teams that have been put into place to deal with this aggression coming from the outside,” Alain said. “It’s not up to America or France to decide who must lead the Ivory Coast.”
The international community has been nearly unanimous in backing Ouattara, whose win with over 54 percent of the vote was confirmed by Ivorian election officials and a 900-strong United Nations observation mission.
In Washington, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton called on Gbagbo to step down immediately. She expressed concern about a massacre in the western town of Duekoue, where U.N. investigators said Sunday at least 430 people were killed last week, after pro-Ouattara forces moved in. It’s unclear which side committed the killings, with both camps denying responsibility.
// In Nairobi, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon reiterated the call.
“There has been too much bloodshed,” Ban said. “I renew my call on Mr. Gbagbo to step down to avoid further violence and transfer power immediately to the legitimate general candidate president Ouattara.”
As the city waited tensely, many people were running out of food. One woman blocked inside her office when the violence erupted said she survived for four days on a pack of diet cookies, a bottle of whiskey and a few cans of soda.
The armed group backing Ouattara began its advance on the city six days ago, taking nearly 80 percent of the country before reaching the perimeter of Abidjan.
Heavy artillery could be heard for days. In neighborhoods near the palace, the explosions were loud enough to make walls shake.
At the Malian Embassy, more than 2,000 Malian nationals have taken refuge after Gbagbo’s forces began attacking citizens of neighboring African nations. Mali, like most countries in Africa, has followed the United Nations position, calling on Gbagbo to step down and angering his supporters, who have carried out revenge killings.
“People are sleeping in the basement and in the halls. There’s no more room,” said Nouhou Diallo, a Malian community leader huddled inside. “The water was cut off yesterday. We’re scared to go out but we were so thirsty today that some of us ran across the road to get water from the lagoon.”
The United Nations began evacuating 200 employees by helicopter, relocating them in a city in the north controlled by Ouattara.
On Sunday, French President Nicolas Sarkozy announced that he had arranged for all French citizens in Ivory Coast to meet at a single location to guarantee their safety.
Cmdr. Frederic Daguillon, military spokesman for the French base here, confirmed that French forces had occupied the Abidjan airport, in hopes of allowing the return of commercial flights so foreign citizens could be evacuated.
Even if the airport is now secure, however, it was close to impossible to reach.
Troops loyal to the defiant Gbagbo opened fire with automatic weapons on a three-car convoy that attempted to drive through Abidjan on Sunday morning, blasting out the windows and wounding one of the passengers, said driver Ahmed Yoda.
A United Nations armored personnel carrier was struck by a rocket-propelled grenade a day earlier, seriously injuring four peacekeepers.
Even diplomats were stranded. A consular officer living in a diplomatic residence not far from the besieged palace said she filled her bathtub with water and had been using it for washing and drinking for the past three days.