Forces loyal to Ivory Coast's internationally recognized president claimed Monday to have seized a major city, an event that could mark the beginning of military operations in the West African country that has teetered for months on the brink of civil war.
The area along the Liberian border has seen limited fighting for the last several weeks, but the latest push could open the way for troops loyal to Alassane Ouattara to march south to the strategic port of San Pedro, or east to the political capital of Yamoussoukro.
Capt. Leon Alla, Ouattara's defense spokesman, said the city of Duekoue fell Monday morning.
A military spokesman for incumbent leader Laurent Gbagbo, who refuses to give up power, did not immediately comment.
Gbagbo adviser Toussaint Alain said from Paris that officials close to Gbagbo told him the city remained under army control and that the rebels were pushed back. He said at least 17 rebels died, a figure that could not be immediately confirmed.
Seydou Ouattara, Ouattara's military spokesman, said forces have also surrounded Guiglo, a nearby city where militias loyal to Gbagbo pillaged the United Nations refugee agency's base last week.
"It will surely fall today," he said, adding that two other cities were being targeted. He did not name them.
"The general offensive has begun, because we've realized that this is the only way to remove (Gbagbo)," said Ouattara, who is not related to the leader.
Alain, the Gbagbo adviser, said Ouattara's forces were also responsible for looting in the town.
Monday marks four months since the November election. The international community and numerous observers, including the country's electoral commission, say Ouattara won that poll. But Gbagbo has steadfastly refused to give up power, drawing financial sanctions from the U.S. and the European Union.
The standoff has led to daily fighting in different parts of the economic capital of Abidjan, where security forces loyal to Gbagbo have used heavy weapons against the population, acts the U.N. said could be crimes against humanity.
The majority of the U.N. count of 462 confirmed killings were carried out by Gbagbo's security forces against Muslims and northerners perceived as being supporters of Ouattara, Human Rights Watch said in a report released earlier this month.
Pro-Ouattara fighters, however, were responsible for some revenge killings, the report said.
More than 1 million people have fled the fighting, the U.N.'s refugee agency said last week, the majority leaving Abidjan where many believe a bloody final battle for the presidency will take place.
Numerous diplomatic efforts to negotiate a peaceful transfer of power have led nowhere, after delegations from the African Union and the regional West African bloc ECOWAS both endorsed Ouattara. Gbagbo's camp rejected their decisions and said they were biased.
Over the weekend, the AU named a former minister from Cape Verde to implement their last ruling that Ouattara should be installed as president. He was immediately rejected by Ouattara's camp as being too closely tied with Gbagbo.
"We haven't closed the door to negotiations," said Ouattara's foreign minister Jean-Marie Kakou-Gervais. "But we won't allow our population to be killed like rabbits in the meantime."
Last week, U.N. refugee officials reported that their base in Guiglo, not far from the Liberian border, was ransacked by armed men from a pro-Gbagbo militia made up of mostly Liberian fighters. Some 100,000 people had fled there to escape fighting.
UNHCR spokeswoman Bernadette Kouame said the militiamen broke into their offices last Wednesday and stole their vehicles before returning on Thursday to take the computers, office equipment and furniture. She couldn't confirm whether there had been any fighting in Guiglo on Monday as their offices there have been abandoned since the attacks.
"Today's operation will prevent Gbagbo from recruiting and training Liberians as he has been doing," Ouattara said. "It will also provide protection for international humanitarian organizations that have come under attack."
The U.N. Security Council is considering a resolution proposed by France and Nigeria which would reinforce the U.N. peacekeeping mandate in the country, banning the use of heavy weapons in Abidjan.
While the resolution falls short of the international intervention that Ouattara has called for, it could allow the U.N. to take a more active role destroying the weapons used against the population.
ECOWAS has threatened a military intervention to remove Gbagbo from power, though it is unlikely that a force could be mustered without the military support of regional heavyweight Nigeria, which is unlikely to do so before its own presidential election, slated for April 9.