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Celebrations Become Violent as Protesters Call for New Election

By Ann M. Simmons
LOS ANGELES TIMES -- ABIDJAN, Ivory Coast

Joyous celebrations of people power turned to sectarian-tinged violence Thursday as rival political forces, fresh from ousting Ivory Coast’s military ruler, clashed over demands for new presidential elections.

Followers of Laurent Gbagbo, who defeated military coup leader Gen. Robert Guei in Sunday’s vote, insisted that their candidate was now the country’s legitimate leader. Supporters of a candidate who had been barred from the election, Alassane Dramane Ouattara, demanded a new vote.

But Gbagbo’s election was endorsed by the Supreme Court, and he was inaugurated president of this West African nation Thursday. In his inaugural address, Gbagbo rejected calls for new elections but said he would reach out to his opponents to create a government of national unity.

Leaders of the opposing political factions urged their supporters to stop the violence, but it was unclear whether they would.

“We need new elections, real elections,” said Kone Lassina, 27, an electronics specialist who stood guard at Ouattara’s suburban residence with a few dozen other supporters. “If [Ouattara] loses, no problem. But we need real democracy in Ivory Coast.”

Ouattara, a former prime minister and International Monetary Fund executive, had been considered the strongest challenger to the general, who took power in a December coup, organized elections and then declared his candidacy. However, the military junta banned Ouattara from running because of doubts about his nationality.

Guei declared himself winner of the election Tuesday, but a massive popular uprising forced him out the next day, paving the way for Gbagbo to take over in what analysts said was a rare victory for people power in the region. Police and witnesses reported that up to 20 people were killed in three days of clashes. However, officials from Gbagbo’s Ivorian Popular Front party put the death toll at 70.

Thursday’s violence threatened to drag Ivory Coast into ethnic and religious turmoil. Ouattara draws his support largely from the country’s Muslim north, while Gbagbo’s strength is in the Christian and animist west and south. Witnesses said that at least one church and one mosque had been set on fire, while others had been ransacked or looted.

Early Thursday, supporters of Gbagbo erected crude barricades around his residence and battled soldiers, who shot volleys of tear gas into a grassy expanse near the compound. Traditional tribal hunters dressed in dye-soaked, hand-woven cotton fatigues and brandishing shotguns took up positions near their leader’s home. Militants prepared Molotov cocktails.

Youths from both sides fought bloody street battles in other parts of Abidjan, armed mainly with clubs, lumber, branches and iron bars.