ABIDJAN — Ivory Coast's new government forces attempted Wednesday to dislodge die-hard militia of deposed strongman Laurent Gbagbo holed up in Abidjan, causing hundreds of residents to flee amid heavy gunfire.
Explosions reverberated across the city as President Alassane Ouattara's forces pounded the northwestern Yopougon district, a stronghold of Gbagbo fighters who have refused to disarm nine days after he was arrested.
Hundreds of frightened residents fled the district across Abidjan's lagoon in small boats packed with suitcases and household items, heading to the safer areas of Plateau and Treichville, an AFP correspondent said.
"Since 4:00 am we have been hearing heavy firing and loud explosions. We were forced to flee the neighbourhood very early," a Yopougon resident told AFP.
"An FRCI soldier told us that they had come to dislodge pro-Gbagbo's Liberian militia who are still hiding in Yopougon," said another resident, using the acronym for Ouattara's forces.
The firing subsided later in the day and residents said the government troops did not venture inside Yopougon.
The FRCI took control of Abidjan after Gbagbo's April 11 arrest and are trying to secure the city for the new government to fully exert authority and return normalcy to the strife-torn country.
But armed groups in Yopougon are still challenging the new authorities.
"I am waiting for a boat with my four children to sail across," said an elderly woman who was trying to flee the militia-held district.
Another resident said: "The walls were shaking, we all fled."
Gbagbo has been placed under house arrest in a secret location in the north of the country after Ouattara's forces captured him with the help of United Nations and French forces.
His refusal to cede power to Ouattara, whom the international community acknowledged as having won disputed November presidential elections, plunged the west African country into a months-long tense deadlock.
Ouattara's government this week began exercising power and on Tuesday Prime Minister Guillaume Soro held the first ministerial meeting at the official government office, with security topping the agenda.
"I think that security has hugely improved since the first difficult days," Soro told reporters. "The interior minister informed us that the police have gone back to their base... and they are ready for work."
FRCI troops set up checkpoints in the city, stopping and inspecting vehicles at several intersections.
Negotiations between the new government and militia willing to disarm have meanwhile been unsuccessful, a defence ministry source told AFP.
The government said late Tuesday there was "continuing action by pockets of resistant militia and mercenaries, especially in some areas of Yopougon, and this is despite calls for disarmament."
"Once again, the government appeals to the remaining mercenaries and militia to take this chance given to them to put down their weapons without fear of reprisals," it added.
Ouattara has urged reconciliation and pledged that Gbagbo will face trial for the crimes by his regime that collapsed after a 10-year reign.
Meanwhile, the former African Union mediator in the Ivory Coast crisis, Kenyan Prime Minister Raila Odinga, urged Ouattara to allow Gbagbo to choose to live in exile.
"Mr Ouattara should be magnanimous in victory and allow Gbagbo to leave," Odinga told France 24 television.
In a move to restore normalcy, the government on Monday urged civil servants to return to work. However few heeded the call as disruptions to public transport and continued insecurity hindered movement.
Businesses, including export of the country's top produce cocoa, are also yet to resume and many banks and offices remain closed.
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