Witness: In an Ivory Coast hotel, "bunker down and hope"

Fri Apr 8, 2011 10:55am EDT
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By Tim Cocks

ABIDJAN (Reuters) - The first time Laurent Gbagbo's gunmen stormed our Abidjan hotel in a hail of bullets, I didn't quite believe it was happening.

I'd spent hours nervously convincing myself that a big international hotel with 10 floors, hundreds of rooms, steel fencing and a locked gate was an unlikely target.

They're fighting a war. They're not interested in us.

Even when gunfire and explosions erupted occasionally from the presidential palace a block away, or over the lagoon, I'd felt relatively safe, curled up on the floor in the fetal position.

There'd been heavy fighting in Abidjan for a month before we moved to the hotel, and I was learning to sleep through it.

But on the morning of April 4, watching from the window as 10 militiamen in combat fatigues jumped the fence one by one and ran inside, I had a sudden realization that picking a French hotel in the town center, full of money and foreigners and lit up like a Christmas tree at night, maybe wasn't such a clever idea.

There were about 25 foreign journalists in the Novotel hotel, including five from Reuters -- me, reporters Ange Aboa and Loucoumane Coulibaly, photographer Luc Gnago and cameraman Media Coulibaly. We were here to cover an increasingly vicious war in Ivory Coast, triggered by Gbagbo's refusal to step down after an election which, according to results certified by the United Nations, he lost to his bitter rival Alassane Ouattara.

We knew the risk: Gbagbo has been handing out AK-47s to young hotheads for weeks and they've been on the rampage. We'd made a plan about what to do should the hotel be raided. That promptly fell to pieces when the panic set in.   Continued...

<p>A soldier loyal to Ivory Coast presidential claimant Alassane Ouattara lies on a road as fighting flares across the country's main city Abidjan April 4, 2011. REUTERS/Emmanuel Braun</p>