ABIDJAN (Reuters) - Heavy fighting erupted in the Ivory Coast town of Duekoue early on Wednesday, residents said, in a sign of clashes spreading to more strategic areas in the volatile west of the country.
Residents said heavy and small arms fire rang out in the town, which has remained under the control of incumbent leader Laurent Gbagbo since a 2002-3 war divided the country, but it was not yet clear who was involved in the clashes.
Rebels who seized the north of the country during the war and who back Alassane Ouattara, the internationally-recognized winner of a November election that Gbagbo refuses to cede, have threatened to push south to try and resolve a power struggle.
"Right now we can hear heavy weapons fire coming from the center of town. The sound is terrifying," said Amara Kone, a resident and manager of a local cocoa cooperative.
Phillippe Deho, another resident, said he had seen gunmen in town all morning.
"I don't know if it is the (army) fighting with the rebels but there have been clashes with heavy weapons and machineguns," he said by telephone.
A third resident, who asked not to be named, said the attack appeared to come from the direction of Guiglo, to the southwest, and that thousands of people had fled to the Catholic mission.
Other towns in Ivory Coast's west have been fought over since the post-election power struggle began, but Duekoue is the most strategically important as sits on the main road from the west to the cocoa-producing center-west regions.
The rebel push in the west and heavy fighting in Ivory Coast's main city Abidjan have sparked fears that an election meant to reunify the country could instead rekindle civil war.
Ouattara told Gbagbo on Tuesday that an African Union offer last week of a safe exit was his last chance to leave power peacefully.
But he has so far officially distanced himself from gunmen apparently fighting for his cause.
(Reporting by Loucoumane Coulibaly; Additional reporting and writing by David Lewis; Editing by Catherine Evans)