A rebel army allied with Ivory Coast's democratically elected president has taken control of a fourth town in the country's far West, a military spokesman said Sunday.
Capt. Leon Kouakou Alla said the New Forces rebels captured the small town of Doke over the weekend, extending earlier gains that included the prefecture of Toulepleu and the town of Zouan-Hounien on the Liberia border.
The rebels have thrown their weight behind Alassane Ouattara, the recognized winner of the Nov. 28 presidential election who has been prevented from assuming office by the country's strongman who is refusing to leave office.
Months of diplomacy have failed to persuade Laurent Gbagbo to yield power, and in recent weeks Ouattara's backers have launched military operations in the far West and in a northern suburb of the commercial capital of Abidjan, which has been seized by pro-Ouattara gunmen.
The last diplomatic attempt was by the African Union, which last week urged Gbagbo to step down. Gbagbo's senior adviser, Pascal Affi N'Guessan, told a news conference Sunday that the AU's decision was "unacceptable" and "unjustified" and described its findings as "like a hair that has fallen into a bowl of soup _ completely detached ... from the facts."
N'Guessan had traveled at Gbagbo's request to the headquarters of the continental body in Ethiopia to hear the AU's decision.
Although both Gbagbo and Ouattara were invited, Gbagbo declined to go. Ouattara accepted the invitation and his departure marked the first time he had left the grounds of a heavily guarded hotel in Abidjan where he has been under 24-hour guard since last year's vote. The hotel is surrounded by Gbagbo's military and the only way in or out is via helicopter.
As soon as Ouattara left the country, the government announced that U.N. helicopters were banned from flying over Ivorian soil, a decree that was ignored by the world body but widely seen as aimed at preventing Ouattara from returning.
Ouattara's spokesman, Patrick Achi, confirmed on Sunday that the president had secretly returned to the Golf Hotel late Saturday.
The top United Nations diplomat told reporters at a Friday news conference that getting Ouattara back into the country "was more complicated than you can imagine," suggesting that Gbagbo's forces may try to shoot down Ouattara's helicopter upon his return.
The president's inner circle disguised the leader's travel plans, telling reporters over the weekend that Ouattara was headed to Senegal and Burkina Faso, when in fact he was already back in Ivory Coast.