ABIDJAN, Ivory Coast – Elite troops loyal to the sitting president Laurent Gbagbo entered opposition neighborhoods in Ivory Coast's biggest city on Monday, throwing grenades, firing machine guns and attacking the population with rocket launchers, witnesses said.
The attack happened as an African Union delegation arrived in a last-ditch effort to find a solution to the crisis that has gripped this nations since a contested election nearly three months ago.
At least six people were killed during the Monday assault, including a 14-year-old boy who was rushed to a local clinic in the Treichville district of Abidjan. Doctors said he died of blood loss and a reporter saw his corpse, his chest and abdomen crisscrossed by hundreds of shrapnel wounds.
A few blocks away, dozens of community members sat vigil around a second body, this one of a young man draped in a bloody sheet who had half his face torn off by what witnesses said was fire from a machine gun mounted on the back of a police truck.
A reporter was led to the spot where two more people had died, and whose bodies had been taken away. At least 15 people were wounded and those that could talk say they recognized the signature red berets of the presidential guard as well as the elite unit's insignia on the trucks.
The crackdown happened in neighborhoods that support opposition leader Alassane Ouattara, who is the internationally recognized president of Ivory Coast. He is expected to receive the AU delegation on Tuesday inside the hotel where he has been barricaded since the Nov. 28 election, unable to govern the country he was elected to lead because the sitting president refuses to go.
Laurent Gbagbo, who has been in power for a decade, has refused to accept the results issued by his country's electoral commission which are considered legitimate by the United Nations and all the international observation missions. The country's constitutional council, headed by one of Gbagbo's closest advisers, has overturned those results.
While the sound of explosions echoed through the town, the pomp and ceremony that accompanied the arrival of four African presidents sent to resolve the political crisis continued as if nothing was going on.
The AU delegation first went to the presidency and is expected on Tuesday to head to the Golf Hotel, a resort hotel on an arm of Abidjan's lagoon where Ouattara and his staff live under 24-hour U.N. guard. The panel created by the African Union comes on the heels of numerous other mediation efforts and is the latest attempt to try to find a graceful exit for Gbagbo, who has been able to cling to power because he still controls the army.
The U.N. estimates close to 300 people have been killed since the vote, a majority of whom were supporters of Ouattara.
The five president panel includes the presidents of Chad, Mauritania, South Africa and Tanzania. Another panel member, Burkina Faso's President Blaise Compaore, canceled his trip to Abidjan after a violent youth militia aligned with Gbagbo descended on the airport late Sunday, saying they planned to attack Compaore's convoy if he attempted to enter the country.
Of the five, Compaore has been the most vocal supporter of Ouattara. By contrast, Zuma has suggested that the results, which have already been certified by the United Nations and accepted by governments around the world, should be reviewed.
Neither side believes the mediation effort will work. Gbagbo's advisers have said they will not accept the panel's conclusions if the panel attempts to tell Gbagbo to leave.
Ouattara's side is equally pessimistic. His prime minister, Guillaume Soro, said last week he expects the negotiation attempt to fail. He called on Ouattara's supporters to launch an 'Egypt-style' revolution.
In Ouattara neighborhoods over the weekend, police opened fire in places where residents were attempting to hold meetings. On Monday, shots could be heard ringing out from Treichville including what sounded like heavy artillery.
Large caliber bullet holes riddled the storefronts in Treichville and a hole 2-feet in diameter was visible in the concrete side of a building that, witnesses say, was blown open by a rocket. Doctors say security forces used grenades during the operation.
Kady Konate, the president of the youth branch of Ouattara's party in Treichville said that demonstrators had tried to take to the streets.
"We called on our supporters to line the sides of the boulevard," said Konate. "The police pushed us back into the neighborhood, where there were lots of bystanders caught by surprise."
Monday afternoon residents built makeshift defenses to keep the police out, including pits dug into the middle of the road and fires lit in each intersection.
Speaking inside the clinic in Treichville, Amadou Koffi said he and his friends ventured out when they saw smoke rising from the street. It was tear gas, he said.
"Then we heard a big boom, and I didn't realize I was hit," said Koffi, who was wounded on the shoulder. "The Republican Guard had tossed the grenade out of the truck."
A trauma physician who was treating the patients and who asked not to be named because of the sensitivity of the matter said that the troops had used heavy weaponry.
"They are using more serious military weapons," said the doctor. "We have not seen this before."
Associated Press staff writer Rukmini Callimachi contributed to this report from Dakar, Senegal.