Gbagbo loyalist threats highlight Ivory Coast fears
Roadblocks. It's always the roadblocks.
We were trying to test claims that forces loyal to Laurent Gbagbo had relaxed their siege of the hotel here in Abidjan, where Mr Gbagbo's rival for the presidency, Alassane Ouattara, remains holed up.
On a scruffy, narrow, wooded section of the road, five heavily armed soldiers - members of Mr Gbagbo's Republican Guard - suddenly surrounded the car, screaming at us to get out.
"You've been filming our positions," snarled the man in command. Not true. Over the course of the next 10 minutes we were all threatened with beatings and death, but our local Ivorian translator and fixer was singled out. He stood, shaking and speechless with terror, as several soldiers jabbed at him with their rifles and described how they would take him into the bushes and finish him off.
"We know you. We know what to do with your sort," they said, after establishing that he was from the north of the country, where support is strong for Mr Ouattara.
It was a chilling insight into the ethnic tensions that have been fanned and manipulated so many times by Ivory Coast's political class and the disputed election have brought back to centre stage.
A man in civilian clothes - a white T-shirt - seemed to be directing events. He spoke into a mobile phone, calling for back-up, and making some of the most overt threats against our whole group.
Eventually, though, the tension subsided and we were allowed to continue along the empty road that leads to the Golf Hotel, and the man the world insists is the elected leader of this country, guarded by his own soldiers and by a robust ring of United Nations forces.
The hotel - usually accessible to journalists and others only by helicopter - is an island of surreal calm at the heart of Ivory Coast's political storm. Staff mow lawns and serve drinks to members of the "government in waiting," as security guards carefully monitor each corridor and exit and others wash their clothes by the hotel pool.
Inside, I did manage to interview Allassane Ouattara. The highlights struck me as the following:
- Laurent Gbagbo was not negotiating in good faith but was simply trying "to buy time" while he brought in more military equipment.
- Negotiations were therefore "over."
- No meeting could take place between the two men until Mr Gbagbo recognised Mr Ouattara as President. Mr Gbagbo would then be guaranteed amnesty and security here or abroad.
- The only option now was for Mr Gbagbo to be removed from office either by the threat of force, or by force itself. Mr Ouattara called on the West African regional body Ecowas to move quickly to launch a military strike to "pick" Mr Gbagbo and "take him away."
- "Removing one person does not mean civil war." Mr Outtara was confident that most of the army, and indeed the country, was on his side and that what military planners sometimes call a "decapitation strategy" could be carried out fairly easily.
We left the hotel, taking a different route back into the city centre, and escorted through the first roadblock by a UN vehicle.
A meeting of Mr Gbagbo's "Young Patriots" was being held on a dusty football pitch in a poor neighbourhood near the airport. Two men in balaclavas, one brandishing a rocket propelled grenade launcher, stood on a van in the centre of the crowd. More armed men lingered on the edges.
The mood in the crowd was generally cheerful, as singers and speakers entertained them. But when I started asking about Gbagbo vs Ouattara, the familiar jibes and prejudices came out. Northerners against Southerners, immigrant communities against "Ivorians."
Several men told me they were ready to "fight and die" for Mr Gbagbo, and that if neighbouring countries sent troops in, "they would see how we Ivorians can defend ourselves."
The constant subtext was that Mr Ouattara and his supporters were not "true Ivorians." When I asked if they could accept, under any circumstances, a President Ouattara, a roar of scorn drowned me out. "So why bother holding elections at all?" I asked. "That's for the politicians to work out," said a young man, adding a subtler threat against the country's huge immigrant community. "If they attack us from abroad, we'll deal with all the foreigners living here."