Amid Violence, Cote d’Ivoire Gets New Leader

At the heavily guarded presidential palace, a longtime opposition leader was sworn in as president today, while politicians from all sides appealed for an end to the ethnic and political violence that wracked Ivory Coast today.

“I feel in this moment the renaissance of the Ivory Coast, the birth of a modern, prosperous, democratic and united nation,” said Laurent Gbagbo, who was swept into power Wednesday in a popular uprising that forced the former junta leader to flee.

But Wednesday’s street celebrations at the junta’s downfall were short-lived, and by this morning Gbagbo’s supporters, sometimes backed by security forces, were battling followers of a rival political boss with machetes, rocks and clubs. Dozens of people are reported killed.

At least three people were burned alive in the working class neighborhood of Yopougon, a witness said, and three mosques were also torched. At least one church was burned in a different section of town, as residents fled the worst affected areas.

Christians vs. Muslims Supporters of Ivory Coast’s most popular opposition figure, Alassane Dramane Ouattara — most of them Muslims from northern-based tribes — fought Gbagbo’s backers, who are mostly Christians from southern ethnic groups.

“People are dying,” said Aida Diallo, who was fleeing one burning neighborhood to get to her family’s home. “I’m scared, so scared.”

Much of the violence had died down in Abidjan by early afternoon, following a large-scale deployment of security forces firing tear gas into crowds and gunshots into the air.

Tonight, senior officials with Gbagbo’s Ivorian Popular Front and Ouattara’s Rally of the Republicans appeared together on state-controlled television to appeal for peace.

“We call on all our militants, our supporters, to desist,” Gbagbo official Lida Kouassi said. “Ivory Coast is in the process of coming out of anguish.”

An official with Ouattara’s party said at least 40 — and perhaps as many as 80 — of his supporters were killed today. Gbagbo’s party officials said there was no way to know how many of their supporters had died. About 50 people had been reported killed in clashes Tuesday and Wednesday. Those figures could not be independently confirmed.

Battle Within the Opposition

Ouattara’s supporters are demanding new presidential elections be held in this West African nation after their leader was excluded from Sunday’s vote.

U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan backed their demand today, saying conditions were now right to put in place a democratic process to let the country’s people freely elect a leader.

The United States has also called for new elections.

“It’s going to be very important for the voices of the disenfranchised Ivorians to be heard, and, in that sense, the holding of free, fair and inclusive elections will be needed,” State Department spokesman Philip Reeker said.

Reeker has called the the elections held in Ivory Coast on Sunday “fundamentally flawed” for “machinations” which included the exclusion of key opponents and General Robert Guei’s suspension of the election commission when he declared victory.

It has also decided to order family members of government staff and non-critical personnel out of Ivory Coast, according to a State Department official.

Rocky Transition

Sunday’s ballot was intended to restore civilian rule 10 months after a military coup. But former junta leader Gen. Robert Guei disbanded the country’s electoral commission while votes were still being counted Tuesday and declared himself the winner.

Gbagbo’s supporters — who also claimed victory — swarmed into Ivory Coast’s streets, later to be joined by members of the junta’s own security forces. Guei is reported to have fled Wednesday to nearby Benin.

His departure was greeted in the streets with jubilation. But within a few hours, Ouattara’s followers were rallying, and black smoke billowed above Abidjan neighborhoods where Ouattara’s backers had blocked off the streets with burning tires, gutted vehicles, pieces of furniture and roadside garbage.

In the western city of Gagnoa, police clashed with pro-Ouattara demonstrators, while in Ouattara’s northern stronghold of Korhogo, his supporters were burning opponents’ houses.

Gbagbo’s supporters complained their rivals only took to the streets after Guei had been forced from power.

“What’s the point of wrecking things now?” asked Yedess Djadje. “We want peace.”

In the streets, however, Gbagbo’s followers were quick to respond with violence. On a street corner in Abidjan’s posh Cocody suburb, young men with white stripes painted on their faces — some carrying nail-studded sticks or machetes — gathered on one street corner, calling themselves “real Ivorians” and threatening to kill Ouattara.

Election Questions

After being sworn in, Gbagbo said he had invited Rally of the Republicans officials to meet with him later tonight to find a solution to their differences.

He added, though: “We will not do another presidential election.”

That night, representatives of one group after another — civic associations, trade unions, political parties — appeared on national television to appeal for calm.

The Sunday election was problematic from the start. The Ivory Coast’s two largest parties — Ouattara’s and the former ruling Democratic Party — boycotted the vote after their candidates were barred from running by the Supreme Court. Both accused Gbagbo of going along with an electoral farce by refusing to join the boycott.

“The great majority of the people of Ivory Coast were excluded from these elections, and this government is illegitimate,” said Rally of the Republicans spokesman Amadou Coulibaly.

Today, the National Electoral Commission released results showing Gbagbo won the vote with 59.6 percent support, versus 32.7 percent for Guei. Minor candidates shared the rest of the vote.

Guei came to power in a December coup, the first military takeover in Ivory Coast. Instability since has battered the economy and frightened Ivorians and foreign investors alike.

Reuters and The Associated Press contributed to this report.