By Ange Aboa and Tim Cocks
ABIDJAN (Reuters) - Ivorian gunmen fighting to depose Laurent Gbagbo after he refused to concede an election were advancing across Abidjan on Monday, bringing their fight closer to the city center and the presidential palace.
Witnesses in the Abidjan suburb of Adjame, about three km from the central business district where Gbagbo's palace lies, said gunmen backing Gbagbo's rival Alassane Ouattara had taken over parts of it and were fighting pro-Gbagbo forces with AK-47s and heavier weapons.
An electoral dispute between Gbagbo and Ouattara, who won a November presidential poll according to U.N.-certified results, has led to weeks of gun battles in Abidjan between pro-Gbagbo forces and fighters claiming loyalty to Ouattara. It threatens to reignite a 2002-3 war the poll was supposed to resolve.
The election was meant to draw a line under years of crisis after a rebellion divided the country in two, but has merely entrenched the divisions between the mercantile peoples of the semi-arid north and the agricultural people of the humid south.
"There's firing everywhere and loud noises from heavy weapons," said taxi driver and Adjame resident Adams Diarra. "People say the rebels have moved in here from Abobo."
Residents of the leafy suburb of Angre said gun battles had been raging there for several hours. A Reuters reporter near there heard small arms fire and a series of explosions in the evening.
"I heard two or three explosions and kalashnikovs firing near Saint Monique church," said resident Desire Daly.
Forces loyal to Gbagbo said they launched an assault on Saturday to drive pro-Ouattara fighters calling themselves "invisible commandos" out of northern Abidjan's Abobo district, where they have held sway for three weeks.
But on Monday, the commandos appeared to have expanded the territory in which they operate to areas 10km from their base.
Gunmen also clashed on Monday morning in an Abidjan stronghold of Laurent Gbagbo, just outside the private house of his army chief, witnesses and a security source said, but it was later calm and state TV denied his residence had been attacked.
OUATTARA DISTANCED FROM INSURGENTS?
There has also been renewed fighting at a north-south ceasefire line, in place since rebels seized half the country in the war, where the gunmen said they took a fourth small town from Gbagbo's forces over the weekend.
A spokesman for Ouattara's government said the fighters were not under his command or authority and were acting alone.
Residents said those fighters still controlled most areas on Sunday and by Monday appeared to be moving south.
The latest African Union effort to mediate in the dispute failed last week, adding to fears of a return to civil war in the world's top cocoa grower, whose crisis has pushed cocoa futures to regular 32-year highs in recent weeks.
A spokesman for Ouattara's parallel government said neither the fighters taking over parts of Abidjan nor gunmen in the north were under his authority.
"To my knowledge there is no decree taken by the president (Ouattara) to create a republican force. They are forming naturally ... There is nothing formal," said Patrick Achi.
(Additional reporting by Loucoumane Coulibaly; Writing by Tim Cocks; editing by Tim Pearce)