By Christophe Koffi (AFP) – Mar 1, 2011
ABIDJAN — Eight newspapers backing Ivory Coast's internationally recognised president Alassane Ouattara closed down on Tuesday complaining of police harassment amid a standoff with strongman Laurent Gbagbo.
Partisan and outspoken, the Ivorian press has been a witness and a protagonist in the showdown between the rival claimants to the presidency since elections on November 28.
The owners of eight papers in Ouattara's camp announced that they were suspending publication "until further notice", with a joint spokesman saying their journalists were "constantly at risk of death."
The press freedom group Reporters Without Borders (RSF) said it was "more worried each day over the situation for freedom of the press" in Ivory Coast, saying that the press was "already highly polarised (and will become) more and more radical."
Tensions meanwhile remained high in Abidjan after clashes between forces of both sides, as the United Nations stepped up its criticism of Gbagbo after his men opened fire on UN workers and briefly detained others.
The fighting was in the pro-Ouattara Abobo neighbourhood of northern Abidjan, and followed days of clashes that have forced hundreds to flee the area.
Some parts of Abobo "are literally emptying of their population," UN humanitarian coordinator Ndolamb Ngokwey said in a statement. "The bodies strewn on the streets must be buried, as soon as possible."
At Koumassi, in the south, residents reported sustained shooting overnight and pro-Gbagbo youths, some armed with clubs, manned roadblocks in the morning and searched cars.
Also Tuesday the local coordinator of Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF - Doctors Without Borders) warned of a "worrying sanitation situation" among the displaced. "There's a risk that some diseases may increase," Issoufou Salah told AFP, recalling a cholera outbreak near Abobo earlier this year.
Salah also warned of difficulties delivering medicines because wholesalers are now insisting on cash as the political crisis has upset the banking sector.
The north, controlled by the former New Forces rebel group that backs Ouattara, has been without power since Monday, and the state electricity company has pointed the finger at the Gbagbo government.
In reply, the government said it was "optimising the use of the current electricity potential in accordance with its priorities," and that power outages were not confined to the north.
Meanwhile, a panel of five heads of state designated by the African Union to find a "binding" resolution to the crisis has been given an extension and must now complete its mission in March instead of the original deadline of the end of February.
They will meet in Nouakchott, the Mauritanian capital, on Friday, except for Burkina Faso President Blaise Compaore, whom the Gbagbo camp has accused of supporting Ouattara.
Tensions also rose between the United Nations and Gbagbo's camp, which accuses the UN force of about 10,500 men in the country of allying with New Forces fighters.
The UN mission monitors a ceasefire between the army and the New Forces, who have controlled the north of the country since a foiled coup against Gbagbo in 2002.
Gbagbo forces on Monday opened fire on UN sanctions experts at the airport in the political capital Yamoussoukro who were trying to check if military equipment was entering the country in breach of an embargo, a UN source said.
UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon accused Belarus of breaking the embargo by sending three attack helicopters and other equipment to Gbagbo, and the team went to the airport to check on the allegations.
Belarus denied the charges, and Gbagbo's government denounced "a lie to justify an attack" by UN forces.
Tensions were further heightened when Gbagbo supporters briefly kidnapped two Ukrainian UN workers, the UN said, although details had yet to be established.
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