It would seem that despite the protestations of probably the most knowledgeable person about Africa in the U.S. Senate, Laurent Gbagbo’s days are numbered.

After a series of victories in key strategic towns across the Ivory Coast, forces loyal to internationally recognized presidential claimant Alassane Ouattara are poised to advance on Abidjan. And all the while, the circle is tightening around Gbagbo. Last night, the Security Council slapped sanctions on Gbagbo, his wife, and a top lieutenants. Today, his top military commanders defected to the South African embassy with his family today.

The question is: will he go quietly or put up a fight? There are about 9,000 UN peacekeepers in Abidjan with a mandate to protect civilians. But their movement has been restricted by armed groups loyal to Gbagbo. There is also a healthy contingent of French troops, who are well armed and well co-ordinated and have a mandate to support UNOCI. These troops could be the decisive in preventing a large scale human rights violations from being visited upon civilians in Abidjan.

That is very much within the realm of possibility. Amnesty International warns of a potential human rights catastrophe in Abidjan.   Human Rights Watch has already documented a case in which forces loyal to Laurent Gbagbo massacred 37 villagers, presumed to be Liberians, in a western town in Ivory Coast:

At least four cars carrying pro-Gbagbo militiamen attacked the village, witnesses said. They were armed with automatic weapons, rocket-propelled grenades and machetes.

The witnesses said the militiamen killed the immigrants inside their homes and as they attempted to flee. They pillaged and burned houses, looting any items of value, including motorcycles, money, televisions, mattresses and clothing.

A 28-year-old Malian man told Human Rights Watch: “At around 3pm we heard the sound of heavy trucks coming and ran into our houses. The men fired into the air, then started breaking down the doors‚ saying: ‘Fire, fire’ and ‘You’re rebels, we’ll kill all of you’.

This could get really ugly.  Really soon.