ABIDJAN, Mar 14 – Forces allied with internationally recognised Ivorian president Alassane Ouattara on Sunday seized control of a fourth town in the west of the country, both sides reported.
As pro-Ouattara fighters continued to push south into territory normally held by troops loyal to rival Laurent Gbagbo, people in district of Abobo, in Abidjan, were counting their losses.
Abobo, a stronghold of Ouattara supporters, had to fight off an assault by Gbagbo\’s forces on Saturday, leaving around 10 people dead.
Ouattara himself made a discreet return to Abidjan Sunday after a foreign tour in which he met fellow African leaders and consolidated his diplomatic position, after Thursday\’s African Union decision endorsing him as president.
A member of Gbagbo\’s militia told AFP that the New Forces (FN) fighters had taken the town of Doke and were headed towards Blolequin "well equipped (with) rocket launchers and machine guns".
An FN leader at Man, the main town in the west of the country, confirmed the victory. The capture of Doke is their fourth major victory in the west of the country since fighting resumed there last month.
If Ouattara\’s allies capture Blolequin, the fighters will have access to the port of San Pedro in the southwest, the largest cocoa-exporting port in the world.
Ivory Coast is the world\’s largest producer and exporter of cocoa. Together, coffee and cocoa make up 40 percent of Ivory Coast\’s export earnings and about one-fifth of its gross domestic product in normal times.
In Abidjan, a member of Ouattara\’s entourage said the leader had returned to his base at the Golf Hotel.
He and his entourage have been holed up there, protected by United Nations peacekeepers — and some FN fighters — since being declared winner of the November 28 presidential election.
Gbagbo has rejected the AU endorsement of his rival\’s presidency, and many fear the deadlock will lead to civil war like the one that devastated the once-prosperous country in 2002-03.
Gbagbo sent his troops into the Abobo district on Saturday with tanks, mortars and helicopters, in a bid to dislodge his rival\’s forces. The assault left some 10 bodies scattered in the streets.
Ouattara\’s camp denounced the violence as "blind murder", saying it was a show of force by Gbagbo who had "his back to the wall."
A source in Ouattara\’s camp reported between "10 and a dozen" dead.
Abobo has been the centre of violence since the disputed election in which more than 400 people have been killed, according to the United Nations.
On Sunday residents hurriedly loaded bags in taxis, or balanced possessions on top of pick-up trucks as they fled the zone.
According to the UN refugee agency, some 500,000 have fled their homes, around 70,000 of whom are seeking refuge in neighbouring Liberia.
In and around Abobo, businesses had reopened Sunday, minibuses were back in service and residents dared to leave their houses to attend church.
In recent days, anti-Gbagbo forces have advanced further south in Abobo, and are now on the fringes of the upmarket Cocody area, home to many radio and television services, which remain under Gbagbo\’s control.
"For six hours we heard gunfire, we were scared to death," a bank executive living in Angre, which borders Abobo, said Sunday.
In Paris meanwhile, Abdou Diouf, the head of the International Organisation of Francophonie (OIF), called on the United Nations Security Council to assume its responsibilities, even evoking the possibility of military action.
"We must not let this civil war take hold," said Diouf, whose organization advocates for human rights in French-speaking countries.
The November elections were meant to bring a definitive end to the country\’s woes after a failed coup against Gbagbo in 2002 sparked the civil war and split the country into a rebel-held north and government-controlled south.
The conflict has blighted a country once seen as one of Africa\’s economic miracles.