Over the last few months, Côte d’Ivoire has been stuck in a seemingly intractable conflict pitting two contenders to power and their supporters. Observers have been looking on with nervous anticipation as Laurent Gbagbo, the incumbent president who refuses to cede power, schemed and pulled every string to hang on to the presidency. The past week has seen the conflict escalate, as the situation is rapidly deteriorating.

Between December 2010 and March 2011, there had been about 500 (confirmed) casualties of violence in Côte d’Ivoire. Late last week, though, the International Committee of the Red Cross is reporting that 800 people were killed in “intercommunal violence” in the western town of Duekoue, very near the border with Liberia. Allegedly, this massacre – referred to by Africa analyst Prof. Laura Seay  as “Côte d’Ivoire’s Srebrenica” –  was carried out by pro-Ouattara forces, who have been steadily advancing, and taking over key parts of the country. Alassanne Ouattara, however, denied his forces were involved and has called for an investigation into what happened at Duekoue.

This terrible massacre, and the gains made by pro-Ouattara forces – who are now in Abidjan, trying to get Gbagbo to surrender – have suddenly caused mainstream, international media to turn their attention to the conflict. Many – including UN Dispatch managing editor Mark Goldberg – believe that this is Ggabgo’s “end game.” While pro-Ouattara forces swiftly took over key positions in the country, they are now encountering resistance from security forces loyal to Gbagbo. He retains control of the official TV station and radio, which continue to send the message that all is well and that Gbagbo has no intention of leaving his post. The presidential palaces are also under Gbagbo’s forces control.

Last week, France approved 300 additional troops to reinforce Operation Licorne, bringing total troops to about 1,400. Currently, the airport in Abidjan is controlled by UN and French forces, while the UN is evacuating all of its “essential” personnel — “non-essential” personnel has already been evacuated months ago.

A key battle for Abidjan has begun, and it’s very difficult to predict how exactly this will end. If history is any guide, we can look at how the second Liberian civil war came to an end in 2003: a protracted siege of Monrovia by rebel forces, ongoing peace negotiations in Ghana and support (both military and political, by the end) of the U.S. and the physical removal of Charles Taylor were responsible for ending the conflict.

The siege of Abidjan, the country’s seat of power (even though Abidjan is not the official capital of Côte d’Ivoire, it is the political and economic heart of the nation) by pro-Ouattara forces moves this crisis from conflict to civil war. The longer the siege lasts, the more the population will suffer and the worst the humanitarian consequences. As we noted here recently, the human rights situation in Abidjan is perilous.

What is happening now in Côte d’Ivoire is the result of unsuccessful diplomacy efforts and negotiations led by regional organizations ECOWAS and the African Union, which, after the other, failed to find solutions. It’s also a failure of the broader international community. The United Nations Security Council, France, the U.S, the European Union have all been “condemning” the violence, and repeatedly asked Ggabgo to step down. International organizations – including the West African Central Bank – cut funding. In spite of all these efforts, the conflict has escalated out of control. Tens of thousands of lives are at risk, and we really have no idea just how bad this conflict will get before it gets better.

If you’re on Twitter, you can follow updates and news about the conflict with the hashtag #civ2010 and through our feed, @undispatch. @dickinsonbeth (Foreign Policy), @hardingbbc (BBC), @texasinafrica, @baldaufji (Christian Science Monitor) are also excellent resources and have been aggregating links and information through their Twitter streams.

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Photo credit: UK Department of International Development’s Flickr Stream

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