Scores leave after attack on I Coast president's HQ

ABIDJAN, April 10, 2011 (AFP) - People living near the hotel base of Ivory Coast's internationally recognised president Alassane Ouattara fled Sunday, residents said, after it came under attack apparently from his rival's men.

Scores had left since the attack on Abidjan's Golf Hotel on Saturday, which the United Nations, Ouattara's camp and witnesses said was carried out by fighters for Laurent Gbagbo who claims he is president.

Gbagbo's side of the months-long fight over the presidency however denied there had been an attack, after hotel occupants reported close gunfire and the UN mission said its peacekeepers had responded to mortar fire.

One resident of the area told AFP by telephone Sunday that "between 200 and 300 people have left" in fear for their safety.

"It was terrible. If you had heard that (the attack), you would not have stayed here," another said. "Since that ended, people started packing their bags. They are leaving with all their things," she said.

The woman said she had heard new gunfire on Sunday, although it could have been warning shots, and four-wheel-drive vehicles carrying armed men had entered the area but she did not know who they were.

The situation at the hotel was calm, an employee told AFP.

Ouattara has been holed up in the luxury lagoon-front hotel since disputed November elections which the UN-backed election commission said he won, a result rejected by Gbagbo who has been running the country for more than 10 years.

Saturday's attack was the first on the hotel since the start of the political crisis, although it has been under siege from the pro-Gbagbo Defence and Security Forces (FDS).

"The FDS are attacking us and we are trying to push them back," a fighter with the pro-Ouattara forces said Saturday.

"The firing is very, very close. Snipers fired bursts from Kalashnikovs. The pro-Gbagbos are attacking us on all fronts," a hotel resident said.

But Gbagbo spokesman Ahoua Don Mello told AFP: "It's absolutely false. There has been no attack on the Golf (hotel). It's an imaginary attack."

A spokesman for the UN mission in Ivory Coast, Hamadoun Toure, said UN peacekeepers had responded after the hotel had come under mortar fire from Gbagbo's forces.

"In conformity with our mandate to protect the Golf Hotel where president Ouattara and his team are, the peacekeepers responded by targeting the origin of the firing coming from the other side of the lagoon," Toure said.

"We intentionally avoided the residence of president Gbagbo."

Ouattara's forces had on Wednesday tried to storm Gbagbo's residence in an final end to the dragging dispute, which has left hundreds of people dead amid allegations of massacres and sent tens of thousands fleeing their homes.

They had to turn back, however, unable to extract the strongman from his bunker.

The United Nations warned on Friday that Gbagbo's forces had since gained ground in the commercial capital under cover of a lull in fighting.

The United States said after the attack on the hotel that Gbagbo had pretended to negotiate in the crisis only as "a ruse to regroup and rearm."

"We call on Gbagbo to cease these hostilities, direct his supporters to stand down, and surrender to President Ouattara's legitimately-elected government," State Department spokesman Mark Toner said in a statement.

Clashes with Gbagbo's troops forced French soldiers to abort an evacuation of diplomatic personnel from Abidjan Saturday.

Ouattara was meanwhile under increasing pressure over allegations that his forces had committed atrocities in the west of the country as they advanced on Abidjan late last month.

Human Rights Watch said they had killed or raped hundreds of people and burned villages, citing new evidence of summary killings of Gbagbo supporters in the far west.

The crippling dispute in the world's top cocoa producer has hit food supplies and sanitation amid cuts in water and power, with UN agencies warning of the threat of mass outbreaks of disease including a resurgence of cholera in Abidjan.

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