Residents barricaded themselves inside their homes, blanketing windows and pushing furniture against doors as Abidjan awaited the final battle between the two men who claim Ivory Coast’s presidency.
Fighters backing internationally-recognised president, Alassane Ouattara massed on the city’s northern edge yesterday, preparing for the final assault.
Their leader was declared the winner of last November’s election, but Mr Ouattara has not been able to assume office because outgoing president Laurent Gbagbo is refusing to yield power.
Water has been cut off to much of Abidjan and on the empty streets, a handful of women with basins could be seen hurriedly crossing the waterfront highway to reach the lagoon. Men ventured out with plastic bags to scoop up water, holding the bags high in the air to signal to soldiers in firing positions that they were not armed.
Only about 20 miles separates the thousands of pro-Ouattara foot soldiers readying for battle from the lagoonside district where the presidential palace and mansion are located.
A resident of the Cocody neighbourhood where the mansion is said around 700 Gbagbo supporters had gathered at the gates of the compound yesterday, after state television, still controlled by the entrenched ruler, called on the population to form a human shield to protect the presidential palace.
The resident, who asked not to be named for fear of reprisal, said the supporters had been armed with AK-47 assault rifles.
Toussaint Alain, Gbagbo’s representative in Europe, told reporters in Paris that Gbagbo was not giving up.
“President Gbagbo, I have said, is at the residence of the head of state, his usual workplace, and he is managing the crisis with teams that have been put into place to deal with this aggression coming from the outside,” Alain said. “It’s not up to America or France to decide who must lead the Ivory Coast.”
The international community has been nearly unanimous in backing Mr Ouattara, whose win with more than 54% of the vote was confirmed by Ivorian election officials and a 900-strong United Nations observation mission.
In Washington, US secretary of state Hillary Clinton called on Gbagbo to step down immediately. She expressed concern about a massacre in the western town of Duekoue, where United Nations investigators said yesterday at least 430 people were killed last week, after pro-Ouattara forces moved in.
It is unclear which side committed the killings, with both camps denying responsibility.
In Nairobi, UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon said: “There has been too much bloodshed. I renew my call on Mr Gbagbo to step down to avoid further violence and transfer power immediately to the legitimate general candidate president Ouattara.”
As Abidjan waited tensely, many people were running out of food One woman blocked inside her office when the violence erupted said she survived for four days on a pack of diet cookies, a bottle of whisky and a few cans of soft drink.
The armed group backing Mr Ouattara began its advance on the city six days ago, taking nearly 80% of the country before reaching the perimeter of Abidjan.
At the Malian Embassy, more than 2,000 Malians have taken refuge after Gbagbo’s forces began attacking citizens of neighbouring African nations. Mali, like most countries in Africa, has followed the United Nations position, calling on Gbagbo to step down and angering his supporters, who have carried out revenge killings.
The UN began evacuating 200 employees by helicopter, relocating them in a city in the north controlled by Mr Ouattara.
Yesterday French president Nicolas Sarkozy said he had arranged for all French citizens in Ivory Coast to meet at a single location to guarantee their safety.
Cmdr Frederic Daguillon, military spokesman for the French base, said French forces had occupied the Abidjan airport in the hope of allowing the return of commercial flights so foreign citizens could be evacuated.
But even if the airport is now secure, it is close to impossible to reach.
Troops loyal to defiant Gbagbo opened fire with automatic weapons on a three-car convoy that attempted to drive through Abidjan yesterday, blasting out the windows and wounding one of the passengers, said driver Ahmed Yoda.
A United Nations armoured personnel carrier was struck by a rocket-propelled grenade a day earlier, seriously injuring four peacekeepers.
Even diplomats were stranded. A consular officer living in a diplomatic residence not far from the besieged palace said she filled her bath with water and had been using it for washing and drinking for the past three days.