Forces loyal to Ivory Coast’s rival leaders engaged in a struggle for control of the country’s western cocoa-growing region of Duekoue. Forces supporting internationally-recognised President Alassane Ouattara, which controlled northern Ivory Coast during the country’s civil war, are believed to have made progress against troops loyal to Laurent Ggagbo in Daloa. Gbagbo is the country’s former president who is widely recognised to have lost November’s presidential elections but has since then refused to concede defeat.
Known as the New Forces, pro-Ouattara groups yesterday claimed to have taken Duekoue, a town on the road to Daloa. A priest in Duekoue told the BBC that some 20,000 people have sought refuge in the town’s Catholic mission, and has called on both sides to treat the area as a safe haven.
November’s elections were intended to unify the country after a civil war that began in 2002, but have had the opposite effect. Although Ouattara triumphed in polls verified by the United Nations, African Union and Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), Gbagbo has refused to cede power and has retained control of much of the country.
Control of Daloa, if achieved, opens the way to San Pedro, a port which ships about fifty percent of the country’s cocoa crop, making it a linchpin in Ivory Coast’s economy. What’s more, if Daloa falls, the New Forces would also be able to advance on the capital, Yamoussoukro.
Gbagbo’s troops are believed to be battling a pro-Ouattara insurgency in Abidjan, the country’s commercial capital. Ouattara’s supporters in Abidjan, known as the Invisible Commandos, have reportedly taken control of most of the north of the city.
Ivory Coast’s eastern border with Liberia has been closed by pro-Ouattara rebels, to prevent Ggagbo’s troops from recruiting mercenaries from this impoverished nation, still recovering from its own recent civil war.
The UN estimates that up to half a million people have fled the violence since November, many of them into neighbouring Liberia, which is itself recovering from a civil war. The UN has also reported at least 462 confirmed deaths resulting from post-election violence.
There have been intensifying calls over the last week for UN peacekeepers already in Ivory Coast, currently numbering 9,000, to do more. However, UNOCI stands accused by Gbagbo’s forces of partiality, after the UN sanctioned election results last November.
As the security and humanitarian situation in Ivory Coast continues to deteriorate, international organisations have stepped up their calls for the international community to do more. International Crisis Group on Friday published an open letter to the UN Security Council, “urging swift action to halt the fighting and prevent ethnic cleansing and mass atrocity crimes.” The organisation warns that Gbagbo’s regime is “intentionally driving the country to chaos,” citing reports of sexual violence, summary execution and individuals being burnt alive. ICG also points to the potentially destabilising effects that mass displacement of civilians and movement of rebels might have on neighbouring Liberia and Guinea-Conakry.
However, with the attention of the international community focused on Libya and the Middle East more broadly, such calls appear to have fallen on deaf ears.
India and Pakistan meet to discuss anti-terrorism measures.
Pakistan has agreed to allow a visit from Indian investigators as part of the Indian government’s probe into the Mumbai terrorist attacks of 2008, after two days of landmark meetings between the rival neighbours.
Home secretaries GK Pillai of India and Qamar Zaman Chaudhry of Pakistan met yesterday and today in efforts to rebuild trust after the 2008 attacks led India to break off talks with Pakistan. India has accused Islamabad of sponsoring terrorist groups such as Lashkar-e-Taiba, which was responsible for the attacks in 2008. New Delhi has also been frustrated by Pakistani reluctance to bring those responsible to justice.
The two sides agreed to establish a hot line to deal with terrorist threats as they arose, according to a joint statement released after talks concluded. There was also an agreement to liberalise the visa regime, making it easier for Pakistani citizens to get Indian visas, and vice versa.
Indian Home Secretary GK Pillai described the talks as “extremely positive,” adding that “the trust deficit has been reduced.”
The talks, the first high-level discussions on security issues since November 2008, will boost the prospects of progress during ministerial talks scheduled in July. Ministers are due to discuss a number of thorny issues in the Indo-Pakistani relationship, including the question of Kashmir and efforts to clamp down on terrorism.
The talks ended just a day before the leaders of India and Pakistan are due to watch a cricket match between the two countries on Wednesday, after Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh invited his Pakistani counterpart to attend the match in Mohali.
Syrian cabinet resigns amid ongoing unrest
The entire Syrian cabinet today resigned in the latest government concessions after weeks of anti-government protest, according to state-run television. President Bashar al-Assad will address the nation within the next day, and is widely expected to revoke the emergency laws that have governed Syria since the Baath party came to power in a military coup in 1964.
Assad, who has ruled Syria since 2000, accepted his cabinet’s resignation and announced that outgoing Prime Minister Muhammad Naji Otari has been appointed interim prime minister until a new government is appointed. A new government is expected to be formed within the next 24 hours, and is likely to be a radical departure from the past, according to analysts.
The cabinet’s resignations come after a host of other concessions were promised, from the release of 200 political prisoners, steps to tackle corruption, changes to media law to improve press freedom, and a ban on arbitrary arrests.
However, the cabinet wields little power in Syria, where most power lies with the president, his family and the state’s security forces. Thus the widespread resignations are not expected to mollify protestors.
Thousands of people have come out onto the streets of Damascus, Aleppo, Hama and al-Hassakah, to demonstrate their support for Assad. Tensions remain in southern Syria, particularly in the town of Daraa where the protests first began after the arrest of a number of teenagers who daubed anti-government graffiti on a wall.
Protestors’ demands have evolved from calls for greater freedoms to demands for the repeal of the emergency laws that have dominated Syrian life for the past four decades. Harsh state security crackdowns have incensed protestors, escalating the scale of their demands.
Amnesty International reports that 37 people have been killed in Damascus, and other towns including Latakia, Daraa and Homs since 25 March. This is in addition to the 55 already killed in Daraa in the course of protests.