After weeks of battling to take control of areas where they are popular, fighters loyal to Ivory Coast's internationally recognized president pressed forward into hostile territory Monday, attacking a district loyal to the incumbent leader who refuses to cede power.
Moustapha Bakayoko, a resident of Abidjan's Yopougon neighborhood, said heavy fighting started early Monday near the home of the army chief Philippe Mangou. Mangou has remained loyal to Laurent Gbagbo since the country's political crisis erupted when Gbagbo refused to step down after losing an election last November.
Bakayoko, 50, a taxi driver, said the shooting started around 6 a.m. and prevented him from leaving his house.
A spokesman for the pro-Gbagbo army, Col. Hilaire Gohourou, confirmed that the battle in Yopougon was ongoing, but refused to give any further details.
Mangou's house was specifically targeted because soldiers have been using it as a staging point to attack people perceived to be pro-Ouattara, said Sitafa Ouattara, a member of Ouattara's party.
Monday's attack is the first inside an Abidjan neighborhood that voted for Gbagbo. It shows that the fighters, who call themselves "invisible commandos" and claim allegiance to internationally recognized president Alassane Ouattara, are moving south _ in the direction of Gbagbo's presidential palace.
Three fighters who had participated in last week's battles to take over PK-18 and Abobo, two neighborhoods in the northern part of Abidjan, confirmed that they were now pressing south into the notoriously pro-Gbagbo Yopougon district. All of them asked not to be named because of the sensitivity of the issue.
"We aren't going to remove Gbagbo by force, that's for the military to do," one fighter said. "We are simply fighting to protect the population from the police, who've been killing indiscriminately."
The election standoff has degenerated into bloody street battles and Ivory Coast stands on the brink of civil war, with the pro-Gbagbo army accused of gunning down hundreds of civilians who voted for Ouattara.
At least seven women were gunned down by police loyal to Gbagbo in Abobo on March 3 as they were protesting an end to the violence, which the U.N. says has killed nearly 400 people.
After the shooting, fighters for Ouattara barricaded the Abobo area with burned-out cars. Over the weekend, Gbagbo's forces announced a major offensive to take back the district. After only a few hours of fighting on Saturday, they were forced to retreat, leaving Abobo in the hands of pro-Ouattara forces.
Months of diplomacy have failed to persuade Gbagbo to yield power, and in recent weeks Ouattara's backers have launched military operations in Ivory Coast's far West, seizing four towns there.
The two men have been locked in a standoff since both claimed victory in a November poll in which the U.N. certified Ouattara as the winner. The African Union last week handed a resounding victory to Ouattara in a decision reaffirming him as the legal president saying the country's highest court must swear him in.
Gbagbo's camp rejected the decision, saying that it doesn't respect the Ivorian constitution.
Associated Press Writer Rukmini Callimachi contributed to this report.
(This version CORRECTS when women were killed. It was not on International Women's Day.)