, ABIDJAN, Mar 31 – Forces backing Ivory Coast\’s recognised president Alassane Ouattara captured key cities and warned his rival Laurent Gbagbo they would march on his stronghold, Abidjan, within hours.
In New York meanwhile, the UN Security Council unanimously backed sanctions against Gbagbo over his refusal to step down from power.
The noose tightened around the embattled strongman\’s regime as pro-Ouattara fighters seized the political capital Yamoussoukro Wednesday.
From there, they swept further south until by late Wednesday they had entered the key town of San Pedro, which holds the world\’s largest cocoa exporting port.
Ouattara\’s camp, weary of four months\’ of fruitless diplomatic initiatives, declared all peaceful solutions "exhausted" as they launched their offensive on Monday.
By Wednesday evening, Ouattara\’s prime minister Guillaume Soro was telling France24: "Gbagbo has only a few hours to leave, otherwise we will march on Abidjan and it will become a lot more complicated for him.
"It will become a lot more complicated for him," he warned.
After a day of heavy losses, Gbagbo had been due to make a highly anticipated speech — promised more than two weeks ago — on state television RTI Wednesday.
Just hours after it had been announced however, his spokesman Ahoua Don Mello appeared briefly on television to say Gbagbo, who was following the situation in the country closely had postponed his address.
The United Nations meanwhile followed the European Union and United States in imposing sanctions against Gbagbo and his leadership.
Resolution 1975 made the first explicit call by the 15-nation Security Council for Gbagbo to stand down in favour of Ouattara, who the United Nations and virtually all countries say won last November\’s presidential election.
It authorised a travel ban and an assets freeze against Gbagbo, his wife Simone, and three of his closest associates.
Earlier in the day residents of Yamoussoukro reported scenes of jubilation in the streets, as Ouattara\’s Republican Forces took control of the city on the third day of their offensive.
"Yamoussoukro is under the control of the Republican Forces, a jubilant crowd is cheering them, they are parading through town," one resident said.
By Wednesday evening, they had entered the cocoa-exporting town of San Pedro, the economic lifeblood of the west African country, the world\’s top cocoa producer, residents reported.
"They have entered the town, they are firing heavy weapons downtown," a resident told AFP by telephone.
The pro-Ouattara fighters also seized control of the town of Gagnoa, which lies between Yamoussoukro and the coast, in Gbagbo\’s home region, residents there said.
In the past three days Ouattara\’s fighters have brushed aside the longstanding ceasefire line that has split the country in two since 2002.
It was established after a failed coup against Gbagbo nine years ago left pro-Ouattara rebels in control of the north and the strongman holding the south.
Ally Coulibaly, Ivory Coast\’s ambassador to France — appointed by Ouattara — said his camp now controlled "three quarters" of the country.
The Gbagbo camp, as his forces fell back under the onslaught of the pro-Ouattara fighters, had called Tuesday for a ceasefire and talks.
But that was dismissed as a diversion in the Ouattara camp.
"It is up to Gbagbo to lay down arms," Ouattara\’s spokeswoman Anna Ouloto told AFP.
Election-linked violence has left at least 460 people dead with as many as one million fleeing their homes, according to UN agencies.
In Abidjan, shooting could be heard in several northern suburbs and panicked citizens rushed to their homes, AFP correspondents reported.
Also Wednesday, two French police assigned to the French embassy were wounded when pro-Gbagbo forces fired on their car, a foreign ministry spokesman said in Paris, condemning the incident as "unacceptable."