ABIDJAN (Reuters) - Forces loyal to Ivory Coast incumbent leader Laurent Gbagbo have stepped up a counter-attack on presidential claimant Alassane Ouattara by firing on his hotel headquarters in Abidjan.
But residents in the besieged Ivorian commercial capital on Sunday came out in numbers not seen in the past 10 days due to heavy fighting, taking advantage of a lull in the bloodshed to replenish their food and other supplies.
Rebel forces seeking to install Ouattara, who won an election last November according to results certified by the United Nations, swept from the north to coastal Abidjan almost unopposed more than a week ago.
But despite a fierce rebel onslaught, Gbagbo's soldiers have held onto swathes of the city, and are now growing bolder.
The U.S. State Department condemned the attack on Ouattara's hotel, saying in a statement that Gbagbo's perceived attempts at negotiation last week were nothing more than a ruse to regroup and rearm.
"Gbagbo's continued attempt to force a result that he could not obtain at the ballot box reveals his callous disregard for the welfare of the Ivorian people, who will again suffer amid renewed heavy fighting in Abidjan," the State Department said.
But even if Gbagbo leaves, Ouattara's ability to unify the West African country, the world's No. 1 cocoa producer, may be undermined by reports of atrocities against civilians since his forces, a collection of former rebels from the north, charged into Abidjan. Ouattara's camp has denied involvement.
A U.N. spokesman in Abidjan said Saturday's attack on the Golf Hotel, which Ouattara has made his base since the election, involved heavy weapons that appeared to have been fired from Gbagbo's heavily defended residence.
"This was not a fight, but a direct attack by Gbagbo's forces, who fired RPGs (rocket-propelled grenades) and mortar rounds, from positions near Gbagbo's residence, at the Golf Hotel," said U.N. spokesman Hamadoun Toure.
He said one U.N. peacekeeper had been hurt, and that U.N. forces had responded by firing on those positions.
Gbagbo's spokesman Ahoua Don Mello denied that Gbagbo's forces had attacked Ouattara's headquarters and said the incumbent leader was calling on his supporters to mount resistance against French forces.
"President Gbagbo called for resistance against the bombing and the actions of the French army in Ivory Coast, because ultimately it is the French army that attacked us," Don Mello said in a statement.
Pro-Gbagbo forces seem to be determined to strike fast, a sign that they want to gain momentum before more troops desert, or that they may be desperate, said Lydie Boka, analyst at StrategiCo consultancy.
"The attack on Ouattara's headquarters have won Gbagbo praise among his supporters but will probably attract more sanctions on him," Boka said, adding that the last big battles would happen soon, even if pro-Gbagbo's backers take time to surrender.
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ABIDJAN PORT SECURED
French soldiers supporting the U.N. mission in Ivory Coast and backing Ouattara's claim to the presidency secured Abidjan's port on Saturday. But they said the central neighbourhoods of Cocody and Plateau were still being fought over.
French helicopters clashed with Gbagbo's defenders early on Saturday during a failed attempt to rescue diplomatic staff trapped by the fighting in Cocody. British and other diplomats were later evacuated, a British Foreign Office spokesman said.
The BBC said bullets had hit the British Embassy and a mortar round crashed into the garden.
Reuters witnesses said a fragile calm had returned to many parts of the city, allowing shell-shocked residents to leave their homes in search of food and water amid the debris of war, or to try to escape to safer areas.
Residents said more people were seen in the streets and more produce made it to the market stalls on Sunday than had been seen in the past week and half of fighting.
"The guns have been silent today, there are supplies in the market and there are many women selling food," said Stella Gogo, a resident of Yopougon, a Gbagbo bastion in Abidjan's north.
"Life is gradually resuming here," said Remi Pagni in the chic Deux Plateaux neighbourhood, which suffered some of the worst gunfire last week.
"There are some communal taxis running, some personal cars are also on the roads and some shops and pharmacies have opened. The situation is very difficult. We have no choice," Pagni said.
Gbagbo is believed to be isolated in the bunker under his residence in Cocody, where he has sought refuge from a concerted assault by Ouattara's troops while his elite presidential guard and militiamen do battle.
Only three days ago, his defeat had appeared imminent and talks took place between the two sides.
Zacharia Kone, a senior commander of Ouattara's forces near the northern entrance to Abidjan, said his soldiers were prepared for any counter-attack.
LOOTING AND BURNING
Gbagbo, who has ruled Ivory Coast since 2000, is defended by around 1,000 men. November's election was meant to draw a line under a 2002-03 civil war that split the world's top cocoa producer in two, but instead re-ignited it.
Burned-out vehicles and looted shops with wares spilling out of smashed windows were evidence of recent fighting in the south of Abidjan, as a French military convoy wound its way to the port handling the bulk of Ivory Coast's cocoa shipments.
"It was at the request of incoming president Ouattara that we have come to secure the port zone," said Captain Roland Giammei, who said the forces were working alongside Ivorian gendarmes loyal to Ouattara.
Ivory Coast's cocoa industry has been paralysed since January, when Ouattara announced a ban on exports and the European Union imposed shipping restrictions in order to squeeze Gbagbo's sources of money.
Ouattara is now seeking to revive the country's economic motor as fast as possible. On Friday, the EU lifted restrictions on the ports of Abidjan and San Pedro at his request. On Saturday, the first Air France passenger flight since April 1 landed in Abidjan.
(Additional reporting by Emmanuel Braun in Abidjan, Tim Castle in London, Patrick Worsnip and Louis Charbonneau at the United Nations, Bertrand Boucey and Elizabeth Pineau in Paris, Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva; writing by Bate Felix and Richard Valdmanis; editing by Mark Heinrich)