, ABIDJAN, Mar 22 – Forces backing internationally recognised president Alassane Ouattara seized a fifth town in western Ivory Coast as strongman Laurent Gbagbo bolstered his army with new recruits.
The two rivals are locked in a bitter stand-off for the presidency after the disputed November 28 presidential poll, and violence between their armed forces has soared as the stalemate nears the four-month mark.
The UN Security Council has said a mortar attack by Gbagbo forces which killed some 30 civilians "shall not remain unpunished" and a dire humanitarian situation is worsening daily as thousands flee their homes.
The Ouattara-aligned New Forces (FN), a former rebel group which controls the country\’s north since a failed coup attempt in 2002, on Monday pushed further into the cocoa-producing west of the world\’s top producer of the bean.
"The rebels entered Blolequin at 0400 (GMT) after intense fighting," a member of the militia fighting for Gbagbo told AFP by telephone.
The FN military spokesman, Seydou Ouattara confirmed the news, saying: "We were attacked in Doke… we pushed them back towards Blolequin and currently we have taken Blolequin and are busy sweeping the area."
They are no further than 80 kilometres (50 miles) from the town of Duekoue, a key crossroads where roads head north to Guinea, west to Liberia, east to the political capital Yamassoukro and south to San Pedro – the world\’s largest cocoa exporting port.
Ouattara\’s administration Monday urged the UN to "immediately resort to legitimate force" to protect civilians caught in post-poll violence.
"Given the magnitude and urgency of the situation… (the) government requests the Security Council to adopt a UN resolution to authorise the immediate use of legitimate force to protect civilians in imminent danger," a statement said.
In Ivory Coast\’s main city Abidjan, thousands of fervent Gbagbo supporters waited to enlist in his Defence and Security Forces (FDS) after a call to join the fight.
In a ceremony in front of the headquarters, FDS chief Philippe Mangou urged the volunteers to give their contact details.
"We will call you when the time is right," he added, an indication that the new recruits would not be immediately integrated into the armed forces.
"I answered the call of \’General\’ Ble Goude. I am ready to die for my country and drive out the rebels," said Shoemaker Theodore.
Goude, Gbagbo\’s fiery youth minister known as "The General of the Streets" for his ability to draw and stir up massive crowds, on Saturday urged men and women "willing to die for their homeland" to enlist and "free Ivory Coast from these bandits".
A spokeswoman for Ouattara said the call to arms was a sign of Gbagbo\’s increasing desperation.
Observers have questioned the quality of the training and weapons for the new recruits, who are unfamiliar with military discipline or the law of war, as the UN estimates at least 440 have already died in the violence.
Gbagbo\’s forces have been accused of possible crimes against humanity for the massacre of up to 30 civilians on Thursday in a market in Abobo, a Ouattara stronghold that has become the epicentre of the violence.
Pressure is mounting on the 10,000-strong UN mission in Ivory Coast to take stronger action to enforce its mandate to protect civilians, who are bearing the brunt of the bloody tug-of-war for the presidency and fleeing the violence in their thousands.
The UN refugee agency estimates some 500,000 have been internally displaced since the post-election violence erupted.
Neighbouring Liberia has received some 90,000 refugees, which the poor country recovering from its own civil war is ill-equipped to deal with.
"We are very worried because we who must protect others are as vulnerable as those we must protect," said Milton Hoid of the immigration services in the Liberian border town of Gborplay.
"We don\’t even have the equipment necessary to communicate… in case of emergency."
A report from the UN humanitarian office on Monday said there was a funding shortfall of 25 million dollars in Ivory Coast.