By Ange Aboa
ABIDJAN (Reuters) - Ivory Coast rebels have seized a third town in the west of the African country, forces loyal to incumbent leader Laurent Gbabgo said Monday, while his government said three had died in a rebel attack in Abidjan.
A standoff between Gbagbo and rival Alassane Ouattara after a disputed presidential election has sparked gun battles in the street and encouraged northern New Forces (FN) rebels now backing Ouattara to push south in the heaviest fighting since a 2002-2003 civil war.
"The rebels took Toulepleu yesterday (Sunday) after combat that lasted the whole day," said Yao Yao, operations chief of Gbagbo's Front for the Liberation of the Great West (FLGO). The rebels had already taken two smaller western towns last week.
"There were not enough of us to contain them this time as we were hugely outnumbered," he said, adding the FLGO had retreated to await reinforcements and was preparing a counter-attack.
Elsewhere, at least three Ivorians were killed and 30 wounded in a rebel attack overnight on a village seen as loyal to Gbagbo, his interior ministry said, adding that a Catholic church was sheltering 700 people who had fled.
The village of Anokoua-Koute, populated by the largely pro-Gbagbo Ebrie tribe, lies within a suburb of Abidjan largely controlled by insurgents loyal to Ouattara.
The attack was separately confirmed by two witnesses. FN rebels were not immediately available for comment.
The United Nations fears the world's top cocoa grower could slip back into all-out war, a prospect helping cocoa futures to break 30-year highs. Supplies have already been strangled by a combination of sanctions, Ouattara's call for a temporary export ban, and the near-collapse of the local banking system.
Industry regulatory data Monday showed 475,345 metric tons of cocoa beans, more than a third of the country's annual output, were currently sitting at Ivorian ports.
U.N.-certified results gave Ouattara victory by eight percentage points, but Gbagbo said the outcome was rigged. He has defied international pressure to step down and has used a military still largely loyal to him to crush dissent.
No death toll was available from Sunday's fighting in the west, but residents in Liberian border villages told Reuters that wounded fighters had crossed over, seeking medical care, and that refugees were spilling into neighboring towns.
"The inhabitants are arriving here in Guiglo to take refuge," Issa Koma, a local cocoa farmer, told Reuters by phone.
"There are a lot of them on the road."
The United Nations says at least 365 people have been killed in the crisis. Diplomats believe the real figure may be much more as the Ivorian army rarely reports deaths, and access is difficult.
Around 300,000 Ivorians have fled their homes to shelter elsewhere in the country, while 72,000 have taken refugee across the border in Liberia, the U.N. refugee agency estimates.
Officials from Ouattara's parallel government said soldiers and Gbagbo supporters had pillaged the houses of 10 Ouattara aides at the weekend. Pro-Gbagbo media said Monday Ouattara supporters had done the same to officials close to Gbagbo.
Witnesses and an Ivorian military source said Gbagbo's forces had shot dead seven women protesters last week, an incident denied by the government.
Power and water supplies to the north were disrupted for most of last week, but have now been restored.
Aside from the paralysis of the cocoa industry, the virtual collapse of the banking sector has made even the most basic economic activity difficult and undermined investor faith in the one-time economic star of the region.
The British mining firm Cluff Gold Plc said Monday it had suspended operations at its Angovia mine due to shortages of fuel, explosives, cement and cyanide, and would not reopen it until political stability returns.
(Writing by Tim Cocks; Editing by Kevin Liffey)